A Lifelong Masquerade

Topics: The Merchant of Venice, Gender, Gender role Pages: 6 (2190 words) Published: May 25, 2014
Vicky Przybysz
Ms. Innes-Murphy
15 May 2014
A Lifelong Masquerade: The Role of Women in The Merchant of Venice In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the expectation and role of women to be passive is highlighted in the way they are regarded by men as weak, and the juxtaposing irony of their power. Since the beginning of time, women have assumed the natural role of caregiver and mother, and women in the Elizabethan era were no exception. Elizabethan women were subservient to men; they were taught that men were their superiors. They relied on men to provide all of their daily needs, so they listened and agreed to everything that they had to say. Rich heiress Portia, on the other hand, does not adhere to those expectations and rules. Through irony and pun, Portia proves herself to be an intelligent and witty woman who is not afraid to challenge traditional social norm. She is a heroine with refreshing initiative that displays great knowledge of how to use her rare intelligence to her advantage, to help the people that she cares about and to gain power. Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, also shows the traits of a strong woman who is willing to leave her avaricious father behind for a new life as an accepted Christian rather than a hated Jew. Shakespeare contradicts the common role of women in the 17th century by making Portia, among other women, instrumental in the play’s development due to her intelligence, confidence and silent power. Portia, Jessica and Nerissa all juxtapose the traits of most Elizabethan women; they are witty, powerful and zealous rather than obedient, silent and motivated by blinding love. Portia shows dominance from the moment she is introduced in the play, which juxtaposes the passiveness of women in the Elizabethan era. She respects herself and knows that she is smart; she believes that men are her equals rather than her superiors. She is an educated woman who looks for a husband that values meaningful things, such as intelligence. Many men in the 17th century had superficial values, placing beauty and wealth over wit. Luckily, Portia’s late father has devised a plan to find her the best husband, avoiding a loveless marriage. Despite the strict rules, she has found a way to manipulate her father’s “lottery” (1.2.29), providing a clue to help her suitors choose the correct casket. Portia has many opportunities to show her dominance, including when speaking to Nerissa about possible suitors. Nerissa asks about Monsieur Le Bon, and Portia’s reply is insolent; “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (1.2.56-57). She is not afraid to show her dominance by insulting a man, which would be unruly for any other Elizabethan woman. She is also not afraid to step out of her comfort zone in order to save someone’s life. Walking into a courtroom full of people in disguise as a young male is not something any woman would do. This brazen act allows Portia to finally seem equal to the men around her because she is just as or even more intelligent. Portia shows her thorough knowledge of the law when she explains Shylock’s predicament, “The law hath yet another hold on you. / It is enacted in the laws of Venice…” (4.1.362-63). Portia is poised as she watches Shylock casually sharpen his knife on the sole of his shoe well until she can watch him leave the courtroom, with a sense of satisfaction. Her wit and eagerness to prove herself provide a positive outcome for Antonio, who is perceived as very physically and mentally weak at this point in the trial. Her dominant role prevails throughout the time in the court because Antonio is helpless in his time of need. Ultimately, it is a woman who devises the plan to save Antonio’s life from the “inhuman wretch” (4.1.4) that is Shylock. Although the end of the play is meant to provide comic relief, the theme of Portia and Nerissa’s power dominates the comedy. Their disguises fool everyone in the court, including Bassanio and Gratiano. Once the women...

Cited: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Folger Shakespeare Library, 2010. Print.
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