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Gender Roles in the Merchant of Venice

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16th century men and women were often confined to certain gender roles within society. This was often upheld in literature and plays during this time. Men were portrayed as independent, brave and strong- the heroes of the text, while women were expected to be weak, submissive and vulnerable. Throughout The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare actively appears to challenge these stereotypes that were deeply rooted in Elizabethan society. Throughout this essay I will be discussing how this was achieved and to what extent these roles were challenged.

Shakespeare makes it clear the extent that male dominance has even in Venetian society through the degree of authority Portia’s father continues to hold over her despite his death. One of the first impressions we receive of Portia is that despite her wealth and social standing she is still unable to have control over her own life and choice of suitor. We learn that she is held to her father’s will. ‘O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.’ (1.2,22-24) Despite the fact that Belmont is directly implied to be more liberal throughout the play, Portia’s choice remains out of her hands. Her father’s power over her life could be seen as a testament to the control men had on women in this period. The character of Portia appears to be submissive though the above lines have an undercurrent of bitterness towards the predicament she finds herself in.

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The role of the submissive woman ties into gender roles of this time. Women were expected to move from their father’s will to their husbands, often portrayed and treated as property. The repetition of the word ‘choose’ really emphasises to the audience as well as the reader Portia’s discontent with the situation and the importance of choices and their effects. In fact, throughout the entirety of this scene the word ‘choose’ is repeated ten times. Our focus being brought back to choice really pulls the idea of Portia’s lack of preference due to her gender to the foreground. This ideal is very fitting with the gender confines of a 16th century woman.

Despite this apparent image of Portia as the acquiescent woman and the casket selection appearing to be a strict stipulation Shakespeare constructs Portia with some wit and clear intelligence. Attributes considered to fit a male gender role. She deciphers a method in which she still can manipulate the situation so that the she can still have some influence over who she marries. ‘Let music sound while he doth make his choice…Let us all ring fancy’s knell I’ll begin it- Ding, Dong, bell. Ding, Dong, bell.’ (3. 2, 43, 69-71) The use of music here adds to the ambience of Belmont that gives it its magical and liberal quality. This ideal that anything could happen- and it is with this music that the character of Portia is able to take some control of the decision-making by giving Bassanio a clue to indicate the correct casket. This is the first step we see as the audience to her challenging societies accepted gender role. As Dusinberre explored in his work Portia’s ‘submission is a garment she wears as gracefully as her disguise.’1 He argues that Portia accepting Bassanio as a husband and appearing to give up any independence is nothing but ‘an act of courtesy’. This is coupled with Shakespeare’s inclusion of wit and humour in Portia’s character give us the impression that there is much more to Portia than the typical stereotype of a wealthy Venetian lady.

Throughout act two scene five Shylock is shown to actively enforce his authority and dominance over Jessica. ‘What, Jessica, I say!’ (2.5,6) Shouting as though she is a servant. Shylock calls for her three times- Shakespeare using a triplet here to draw our attention to Shylock’s authority over Jessica. This is then followed by Jessica’s answer ‘Call you? What is your will?’ (2.5, 10). In this line her character answers expectant of an order. She appears submissive and emotionless. Shylock then proceeding to bark orders at Jessica bears a possessive and bitter undercurrent. ‘Hear you me, Jessica: Lock up my doors;’ (2.5, 27-28) The use of listing as well as a colon before rattling off his commands makes his words and orders the focal point. He does not stop or even allow time for Jessica to speak – nor even accept her duties. It is simply expected. In fact, Jessica only utters three lines in the entire scene. The idea of women being completely under the control of men and what was expected of the 16th century daughter is brought to the contemporary readers/viewers’ attention, while also pushing the male gender as the dominant one to the foreground. Shakespeare is simply continuing on with what society specified however it does seem to indirectly cause us to sympathise for Jessica and therefore understand her elopement.

Despite this at first submissive view of Jessica Shakespeare’s characterisation of her exemplifies the challenge that he portrayed to the role and expectations that were positively reinforced for women in the 16th century. Jessica’s elopement with her lover Lorenzo not only is defying the most prominent male in her life but also society’s expectations. This would have not been a common practice in this time and would have been greatly frowned upon. Daughters were the property of their fathers, just as wives were their husbands. Jessica was actively defying the roles inflicted on women and living by her own free will and agency. ‘I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners.’ (2.3.18-19) These lines really emphasise Jessica’s empowerment and determination. The use of end-stopping between the two halves of the statement directly appears to symbolise the separation she feels between her and her father as well as her, evident distain at her father’s behaviour. Shakespeare constructs a deep undercurrent of strength and opposition to the ‘dominant’ male in her life. The actions and words of Jessica’s character epitomize the challenges Shakespeare has put to expected gender roles and really pushes the boundaries of what was seen to be positive about a 16th century woman. Despite her apparent disregard for what was seen as the right thing to do she is still shown in the best light- the audience is really pulled into viewing her strength and defiance as a positive attribute to her character.

Shakespeare uses crossdressing through The Merchant of Venice to give the women in the play power to do what could otherwise not be done due to the restrictions that came with their gender roles. Despite Jessica’s power and defiance, she has to dress as a page boy to execute her escape from the dominance of Shylock’s household and elope. However, she is portrayed to be embarrassed by this- especially being seen as a boy by her lover. ‘Cupid himself would blush | To see me thus transformed to a boy.’ (2.6, 38-39) The idea of ‘hold[ing] a candle to [her] shames’ (2.6,41) is frightening to her. Shakespeare’s use of metaphorical language here allows the audience to emphasise with Jessica. The idea of holding a light to her disguise and her flaws- but also holding a light to her need to dress as a man to gain any power. Holding a light to societies flaws is perhaps indirectly implied. Beauty and virtue was highly valued as an attribute of women and being around her lover while appearing ‘unattractive’ was humiliating to her. It brings our focus as a modern reader to how intertwined patriarchal ideals must have been in the minds of women of this time. It is interesting that Shakespeare would use becoming male as the only way for Jessica to escape. It ties in with what was possible and praised in men – independence and more choice- something that as a woman her character could not fully execute despite all her determination.

Unlike Jessica, Portia and Nerissa are not represented as at all uneasy. On the contrary they seem rather exited by the concept. ‘That they shall think we are accomplished | With that we lack. […] And wear my dagger with a braver grace’. (3.4,61-62,65) Shakespeare’s use of language here clearly references to that lack of political and social power that women had. Despite Portia’s wit and clear thinking, she would be unable to save Antonio or have a voice in the court room as a woman. The audience sees not a restricted, powerless Portia, agonizing over the possible misfortunes of being wed to ill-complexioned braggarts, but a confident, even cunning Portia. When dressed as men they were able to speak and be taken seriously an allowed a legal voice. Shakespeare is appears to be using these lines to target the inequality that appears to be an undercurrent on these lines. The idea of wearing a dagger with a braver grace perhaps has the metaphorical value of a dagger giving them power and strength that they can ‘wear’ better than any man could in this instance and this reiterated when they are the ones to ‘save the day’ in the courtroom- a job no man could do. The idea of the dagger also connotates quite phallic imagery.

This is quite a clever gender role reversal that Shakespeare uses to not only highlight inequality and sexism- but also undermining the male characters. They appear as helpless and vulnerable, attributes that supposedly belonged to the female gender and are praised in them but looked badly on in men. Portia and Nerissa’s disguise undermines and deconstructs the male hierarchy as they achieve more than Bassanio, Antonio or Shylock are able to achieve within the courtroom. Shakespeare uses the character of Portia to ask the audience to reconsider holding so much value in a socially constructed idea of gender that denies her power despite ability. When Portia continues to expand her plan Nerissa and explain of how they will be succesfully disguiced as men Shakespeare uses her speech to highlight the contrasts between the gender expectations of men and women. ‘turn two mincing steps into a manly stride, and speak of frays like a fine bragging youth, and tell quaint lies, how honorable ladies sought my love, which I denying, they fell sick and died — I could not do withal! Then I’ll repent, and wish, for all that, that I had not killed them; and twenty of these puny lies I’ll tell, that men shall swear I have discontinued school above a twelvemonth. I have within my mind a thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks, which I will practice.’ (3.4.63-78)

Throughout her speech she reiterated attributes that were expected from men and so we could assume the opposite is expected from women. However, she herself portrays many of these attributes throughout The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare may have used this to draw the contemporary audience’s eyes to the similarities between men and women and the lack of clear distinction between what is expected of each role. Portia talks of men using ‘raw tricks’ in a derogatory tone but when the play continues she plays many more tricks on the male characters of the play than any of the men on the women. It appears as though Portia is using her disguise to allow her less ‘feminine’ traits to come to the surface. It must also be considered the complexity of the court room scene that was formulated by Shakespeare. Due to the barre on women acting on the stage all characters would have been played by men. Women would have been played by young boys with unbroken voices. When Portia was in the court room she would have been played by a young boy pretending to be a woman, pretending to a boy with an unbroken voice. This was a trait of most of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies however – this feels as though it has a little more poignancy. It would have brought the audiences focus onto gender roles – perhaps giving Portia’s male like qualities more poignancy.

Shakespeare’s role reversal is furthered through Portia and Nerissa’s trickery of their husbands using their rings. Although both men began appearing dominant they were left grovelling and apologising to the women. ‘Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear| I never more will break an oath with thee.’ (5.1, 248-249) The rings were used as test of loyalty and assurance with the right to end the commitment should they be misplaced and so Bassanio ignorant to Portia’s trickery is terrified he will lose her and their marriage.

Portia’s language when confronting Bassanio is also very interesting. ‘Mark you but that!| In both my eyes he doubly sees himself, | In each eye one. Swear by your double self,’ (5.1, 244-246) Shakespeare’s use of metaphorical imagery here connotate pictures of a monster like creature which was hinted to in prior to this conversation (3.2, 122-126) of Zeuxis’s portrait of Helen that rather than beauty created a monster like image. The idea of taking all the beautiful aspects of different women to create the perfect one turning into something hideous. Here we see the idea of one’s ‘double’ self being a ‘self-defeating reflection’. Portia is holding on to Bassanio’s admission to being two-faced. The imagery around eyes could also be seen to directly imply a link to ‘an eye for an eye’ in the Old Testament. This ideal of one paying the price for what one has done without mercy. This contrasts with Portia’s speech on mercy in courtroom (4.1, 181-202) and ties more in which Shylock’s attitude towards wrongdoing. This whole ideal of conflict and action is to be expected from male character’s not women and so this also challenges the boundaries of gender roles here.

Throughout The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare explores gender roles and pushes their boundaries in ways other playwrights of this time did not. Not only does it express women’s dependence and submissiveness and lack of agency over their own lives, it also shows the independent gender of men becoming dependent on women. Shakespeare uses cross dressing to emphasise lack of power and language to make not only a contemporary but also a modern audience sympathise and ponder the roles that society have laid out for certain genders. Women are not presented to be vulnerable but rather characters who behave, act and think in a way that did not conform with what was expected in 16th century Elizabethan England. Whilst doing this he also highlighted how men did not always fit the roles they were given challenging the gender roles given by society.

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