Homosexuality and Thrifty Women in The Merchant of Venice

Lars Engle – “Thrift is Blessing”: Exchange and Explanation In The Merchant of Venice

Lars Engle writes a particularly interesting essay called, “Thrift is Blessing”: Exchange and Explanation In The Merchant of Venice, where he exposes a woman who takes advantage of homosexual desires to protect her financial endowment and prove herself as the presiding individual in her marriage. As interesting of a lens to read The Merchant of Venice Engle creates, it also gives a lot of credit to Portia. That is no small feat, especially in the 16th century.

Engle sets the background of his essay very well by describing the dense set of transactions the play provides, and focuses on the economic and erotic ones. He asserts that all relationships have economic aspects as well as erotic and are neither completely one nor the other. He then lays out a detailed agenda, which he intends to follow over the course of his essay, and points out the importance of analyzing specific transactions, most of which he mentions later in the text. The analysis of financial transactions creates the idea of ‘a balance sheet of erotic obligation,’ which he references fairly regularly.

Engle divides his analysis of the plot into three sections, two of which contain the most important claims of the article. They are the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and Portia’s money handling tactics. The first section is focused on why Antonio is sad at the beginning of the play. He points out that Solerio and Solanio offer a spot on diagnosis of his sadness, which is that he is in love. Engle proceeds to offer a reading that convinces me of Antonio’s homosexual tendencies towards Bassiano. Combining the erotic/economic transaction theology he used to begin the essay with close reading of the first interaction between Antonio and Bassiano, he reveals this. He then references his ‘balance sheet of erotic obligation’ to show that in effect, Bassiano has asked for Antonio’s permission to pursue Portia, painting her as an instance of ‘male homosocial desire.’ He describes this as basically any interaction between men “within which the various forms of traffic in women take place.” (Engle 26) By itself, this analysis of the plot is key in revealing and convincing any readers of the homoerotic desire Antonio has for Bassiano, but it is also important in setting up the rest of Engle’s essay which describes Portia as the presiding figure in a marriage that could be understood as a poor lord taking advantage of a rich heiress.

In between the first section and the section about Portia, Engle talks about Shylock’s likeness to three characters from the Old Testament, but it does not offer any resoundingly important analysis nor is it particularly interesting to those lacking a strong biblical knowledge. In his third section, entitled “Protecting the Endowment,” Engle first describes Portia as Bassiano’s be-all end-all, but quickly asserts that Portia is not blindly being used for her wealth. Before Bassiano chooses which casket he will open, Portia tells Bassiano “I stand for sacrifice.” His ability to choose correctly is, in part, related to his willingness to take direction from Portia. Engle’s reading of the following scene, during which Portia learns of Bassiano’s debt, is essentially that Bassiano unleashes the beast. She discovers the possible homosocial aspect of her marriage and does what she needs to in order to avoid becoming the object of that exchange, while attempting to protect her estate.

The trail exposes the financial logic she has in attending, as she manages to prevent Antonio from being flayed alive while retaining the money she sends Bassiano off with. She further protects her endowment by invoking a law that leaves Antonio in riches, so Bassiano no longer owes a debt to him. She finally removes herself as the object of homosocial desires when Antonio pledges his love and service to her. This leaves her with the erotic obligation from the balance sheet, and she keeps all of her endowment.