Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice

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In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, gender roles are explored, culminating in two distinct scenes of cross-dressing. The men of Elizabethan society enjoy a prominent status based solely on gender, to which women are clearly outsiders. This is particularly evident in Jessica’s newfound freedom when dressed as a pageboy in Act 2 and Portia’s and Nerissa’s immediate elevation in social standing when they take on male personas in Act 4. Through these two instances of cross-dressing, Shakespeare presents class not in terms of socioeconomic status but in the benefits of being male. Although the three women all partake in cross-dressing as a means of undermining patriarchal constraint, the consequences vary as there are several interesting discrepancies in the motivation and outcome of the action.

With regards to Jessica’s character, the use of cross-dressing demonstrates patriarchal usurpation on a relatively small scale. Her donning of a young page’s outfit in order to elope with Lorenzo is the first instance of cross-dressing within Merchant of Venice. In her act of transformation, Jessica indicates her shame in converting from female to male: “I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me, /For I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2.6.34-35). The shame Jessica feels in posing as a man parallels the shame she feels at her desertion of her father’s house and subsequent thievery. Jessica’s guilt exposes the constrictive nature of gender roles by enforcing that she cannot escape her established position in society without consequences, be they seen or simply felt internally.

Although Jessica is seemingly subverting the patriarchal stratification, she is in fact still subservient to her male counterpart. Jessica’s disguise establishes a fraternal (as opposed to romantic) relationship between her and Lorenzo, demonstrating the independence and freedom men have which women are denied. In order for Jessica to leave her father’s house and not arouse the...
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