Women in “Merchant of Venice”
Women in “Merchant of Venice”
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, there are many controversies over religion and friendship, but the idea of the play that interested me the most was the role of women. The two women that are in this play take on the role of the saviors of the men who seem helpless and hopeless compared to them. Influences of the Radical Feminist Perspective in The Merchant of Venice Angela Caravella 2006
The role that women play within many Shakespearian plays often highlights their perseverance, strength, and intelligence. This perhaps indicates the playwright’s understanding that women should be on equal ground with men. However, the conclusion of his works lead to the powerful, independent woman settling back into society with her husband. Within the play The Merchant of Venice, the female characters achieve amazing deeds to “clean up” the messes that their husbands had made and achieve their own goals, only to return to their subordinate positions as wives. Portia, Nerissa and Jessica’s assumption of the male form to move unnoticed between Belmont and Venice allowed them a glimpse into the world of feministic ideals. In later scenes, when Portia and Nerissa push the boundaries of their disguise, they specifically emphasize the nature of radical feminism. The altering of Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica’s gender to suit the society of Venice is a direct spat in the face of the patriarchy within the environment of The Merchant of Venice.
Unfortunately, the overarching ideals of the world at this time are able to recapture their stranglehold on Jessica, Portia, and Nerissa. The construct of feminism is based upon the woman’s struggle in society for social, political, and economic equality with men. Feminism seeks to eliminate the notion of sexism, which is the degradation, oppression, and subordination of women (http://www.feministissues.com/radical_feminism.html). Feminism possesses many subcategories that focus on specific areas within the sphere of women’s inequality tin conjunction to men. One sub category, radical feminism, concerns itself with the idea that society is influenced by a male dominated or patriarchal hierarchy. Under this school of thought, the patriarchy can be described as “the division of rights, privileges and power primarily by gender, as a result of oppressing women and privileging men.
A radical feminist essentially believes that they are oppressed on the single ideal that the gender of a woman is inferior and it can be considered that to alter one’s gender would be a radical feminist activity. The method in which the patriarchy is exercised upon women exists in physical and psychological forms through the physical action of deeds invariably leads to the psychological acceptance of the female’s role as subordinate. Women must adhere to several physical standards that obey the guidelines that determine the feminine form. They must be of the desirable body type, with small and graceful movements confined within an invisible enclosed space that is modestly dressed and eyes cast downward (Bartky, 67-69). Conversely, men with regards to space, take up as much of an area as possible that he influences unlike a woman who tends to be a victim of her environment. A woman who does not conform to such stringent standards is often termed by society as a “loose” woman or bad influence. This type of woman has already been accounted for under the patriarchal system. She is of less stature than women who adhere to the proper code of conduct and society has marker her for disgrace: “Her looseness is manifest not only in her morals, but in her manner of speech, and literally in the free and easy way she moves” (68). Eye contact is another physical action in which the proper woman makes little of so as to not challenge the man to whom she converses with.
The loose woman again is seen as a threat to social norms because she looks at whatever and whomever she solicits her attention (68). When an action has been performed by the woman to displease a man a great deal of suffering ensues. The man himself may deny intimacy if he is unsatisfied with a female’s performance but the woman too punishes herself for having defiled the expectations placed on her by the patriarchy. “The depth of [these] women’s shame is a measure of the extent to which all women have internalized patriarchal standards of bodily acceptability” (77). Since women have made patriarchal values part of their inner psychological being, it is difficult to not feel the ramifications of feministic practices within one’s self. Within the play, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, the three female characters: Jessica, Portia and Nerissa’s experience with differing levels of the influence of the patriarchy upon their radical feminist actions taken throughout the play. The radical feminist perspective has a focus on gender inequality, so to defy traditional societal norms of gender; for example, cross-dressing might be a physical action that a woman could perform as a method of control, empowerment and activism to promote this ideal. The female characters Jessica, Nerissa and Portia all engage in cross-dressing however, each woman uses this activity to achieve different aims as well as possess varying opinions regarding its use.
Within Act II Scene 6 of the play, Jessica assumes the form of a man so that she may escape from her father’s grasp and elope with Lorenzo. I am glad ’tis night, you do not look on me, For I am much ashamed of my exchange. But love is blind, and lovers cannot see ,The pretty follies that themselves commit For if they could, Cupid himself would blush To see me transformed to a boy… What, must I hold a candle to my shames? They in themselves, good sooth, are too too light. Why, ’tis an office of discovery, love, And I should be obscured (Shakespeare, 2.6, 36-40,42-44). Jessica is embarrassed by the disguise of a page to flee which exemplifies how tight the patriarchal ideals are bound to her personality. She is almost unable to save herself and exercise her own will when she realizes that she must pretend to be a man. When Portia and Nerissa cross-dress, the opinion is quite different or at least not indicated by Shakespeare. When we are both accounted like young men, I’ll prove the prettier fellow of the two, And wear my dagger with the braver grace, And speak between the change of man and boy With reed voice; and turn two mincing steps ,Into a manly stride; and speak of frays Like a fine bragging youth; and tell quaint lies, How honourable ladies sought my love, Which I denying, they fell sick and died-…(3.4,63-71).
These characters “neatly solve a knotty legal problem” for Antonio and Bassanio under the guise of male lawyers (Jardine, 30). In their form they are able to manipulate the course of action within the courtroom as well as outside it by attracting ladies’ attention and convincing Bassanio and Gratiano to give up Portia and Nerissa’s rings. By defying their genders to enter into the male-dominated society in Venice they enact the essence of radical feminism. Portia and Nerissa do not hold shame for their actions that could be an indication of their lack of concern for patriarchal values but also an interest in saving the life of Antonio because he has a deep relationship with Bassanio. The most powerful point of Portia and Nerissa’s activity as lawyers in Venice is that they are able to move undetected in society and achieve their goals. This activity deconstructs the male hierarchy because they achieve more than what Bassanio, Antonio or Shylock could accomplish within the courtroom. As men these women were capable of accomplishing astonishing deeds since they were out of the realm of low expectations placed on women. To further strengthen the radical feminist philosophy, Portia and Nerissa are able to obtain power over the men so as to adjust the gender imbalance while not shrouded under the garb worn by men as well. “Portia’s clothes effect no metamorphosis on her spirit, the lawyer was never a lady, although the lady is always something of a lawyer (Dusinberre, 267-268).
While Belmont can be considered more liberal in regards to women’s equality there is at lease one decree that remains steadfast, Portia’s marriage as determined from the casket test. Portias father’s power over his daughter even in death is a testament to the control men have in the affairs of women, as though they were property and not human beings. According to her father’s will, Portia’s husband will be the man who chooses the correct casket that contains a picture of Portia. “Oh, 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” (Shakespeare,1.2,22-24). While the casket selection appears to be a strict stipulation, the clever Portia deciphers a method in which she can still have an influence upon the man that she marries. Portia “accepts” the fact that she must marry Bassanio after he selects the lead casket as the fulfillment of her father’s desires. She was able to tip the scales of the decision-making process in her favor so that she could choose her husband by discreetly providing clues to indicate the correct casket. “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). Superficially, the situation relates to the overarching patriarchy and its strength; Portia however, acts to work against the oppressive contract she is bound to and chart the course of the selection of her husband (Dusinberre, 85). In addition to the creation of an equilibrium over her destiny by means of manipulation of her father’s will, both Portia and Nerissa are able to exercise some means of assurance that they will keep their husbands with the ring test.
The concept of loyalty of the men towards the women embodied within a ring serves as a form of commitment and gives the full right to end at the engagement of marriage should such a keepsake be misplaced. The promise Bassanio and Gratiano make to Portia and Nerissa respectively regarding the rings as strong a contract for the women as a legal bond similar to Shylock and Antonio’s agreement (Phialas, 145). When Portia and Nerissa call attention to the loss of the rings to Bassanio and Gratiano, they show signs of distraught and anger so much as to deny them their love. This exercises the feministic perspective because they are able to use as much discretion a man could in the gaining and subsequent dismissal of their fiancés. Feministic values are highly prominent in the play The Merchant of Venice, especially those including the radical feminist concept of a patriarchal society. The female characters were able to utilize the activity of cross-dressing to carry out the business they needed so that their lives might be more bearable while under the control of men within society. Not all of the characters felt empowered by their action to become men, a sense of shame accompanied Jessica during her course as a man. Portia and Nerissa were able to humble their future husbands to provide an equal ground for both couples with the ring test. Portia also even made it possible to guide the husband selection decision to suit her interests.
The constant varying tension between the male and female characters in their struggle for dominance over the other indicates that Shakespeare had a deep and profound knowledge of the dynamic between men and women. Portia is the heroine of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. A rich, beautiful, and intelligent heiress, she is bound by the lottery set forth in her father’s will, which gives potential suitors the chance to choose between three caskets composed of gold, silver and lead. If they choose the right casket – the casket containing Portia’s portrait – they win Portia’s hand in marriage. If they choose the wrong casket, they must leave and never seek another woman in marriage. Portia is glad when two suitors, one driven by greed and another by vanity, fail to choose correctly. She favours Bassanio, a young Venetian noble, but is not allowed to give him any clues to assist in his choice. Later in the play, she disguises herself as a man, then assumes the role of a lawyer’s apprentice (named Balthazar) whereby she saves the life of Bassanio’s friend, Antonio, in court. Portia is one of the most prominent and appealing of the heroines in Shakespeare’s mature romantic comedies. She is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, and quick-witted, with high standards for her potential romantic partners. She obeys her father’s will, while steadfastly seeking to obtain Bassanio. She demonstrates tact to the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, who unsuccessfully seek her hand. In the court scenes, Portia finds a technicality in the bond, thereby outwitting Shylock and saving Antonio’s life when everyone else fails. Yet, she also shows immense injustice and cruelty towards the figure of Shylock and those who are sympathetic with Shylock see her as the epitome of blunt, barbaric, Christian primitivism. It is Portia who delivers one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice: The quality of mercy is not strain’d.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Despite Portia’s lack of formal legal training, knowledge ,education,(give lines from text book.)she wins her case by referring to the details of the exact language of the law. Her success involves prevailing on technicalities rather than the merits of the situation. She uses the tactics of what is sometimes called a Philadelphia lawyer. However, the concept of rhetoric and its abuse is also brought to light by Portia – highlighting the idea that an unjust argument may win through eloquence, loopholes and technicalities, regardless of the moral question at hand – and thus provoking the audience to consider that issue. Portia
From the first time we meet Portia, we see that she is a very smart woman and that she is looking for a man that has more thoughts in his head than those of money and beauty. She and Nerissa talk of the stupidity of all her suitors and it is very clear that she is looking for a respectable man who will love her for who she is and not for her money. This separates her from the men from the beginning. All the comments that she makes about the men put her on a pedestal compared to them. Just by speaking of men this way she shows that she is just smarter than they are. “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man. In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!” (Act I. Scene ii. 56-58). The scenes in which she meets with the suitors to choose the caskets and to see if they will marry her, she is clearly in the dominant position. She acts like she is a judge in a court and she has all authority over the suitors as they choose the different caskets and find out their fates. “Behold, there stand the caskets, noble prince. If you choose that wherein I am contained, Straight shall our nuptial rites be solemnized. But if you fail, without speech, my lord, you must be gone from hence immediately” (II.ix.4-8). She says these lines as a judge would pass down his or her sentence to the defendant found guilty of a crime. She shows herself to be of higher status to the readers and it seems a first to me because I have never read a Shakespeare play in which the women hold dominant roles over the men.
Quick-witted, wealthy, and beautiful, Portia embodies the virtues that are typical of Shakespeare’s heroines—it is no surprise that she emerges as the antidote to Shylock’s malice. At the beginning of the play, however, we do not see Portia’s potential for initiative and resourcefulness, as she is a near prisoner, feeling herself absolutely bound to follow her father’s dying wishes. This opening appearance, however, proves to be a revealing introduction to Portia, who emerges as that rarest of combinations—a free spirit who abides rigidly by rules. Rather than ignoring the stipulations of her father’s will, she watches a stream of suitors pass her by, happy to see these particular suitors go, but sad that she has no choice in the matter. When Bassanio arrives, however, Portia proves herself to be highly resourceful, begging the man she loves to stay a while before picking a chest, and finding loopholes in the will’s provision that we never thought possible. Also, in her defeat of Shylock Portia prevails by applying a more rigid standard than Shylock himself, agreeing that his contract very much entitles him to his pound of flesh, but adding that it does not allow for any loss of blood. Anybody can break the rules, but Portia’s effectiveness comes from her ability to make the law work for her. Portia rejects the stuffiness that rigid adherence to the law might otherwise suggest. In her courtroom appearance, she vigorously applies the law, but still flouts convention by appearing disguised as a man. After depriving Bassanio of his ring, she stops the prank before it goes to far, but still takes it far enough to berate Bassanio and Gratiano for their callousness, and she even insinuates that she has been unfaithful Act 3, Scene 2
Love 7: Bassanio and Portia are clearly in love with one another – they want to marry, but find themselves bound by the arbitrary rule set by her father. Portia doesn’t want to say goodbye to Bassanio forever, so he asks him to delay choosing a chest – if this is going to be the last time she ever sees Bassanio, she wants it to last as long as possible. Bassanio, on the other hand, can’t bear delaying his choice any longer. He can’t bear to live another moment not knowing if he’s going be able to marry Portia and spend the rest of his life with her.Ring: The ring Portia gives to Bassanio as a symbol of their love. He swears he will never part with it, and she uses it to test which of his loves is stronger, his love for her, or his love for his friend Antonio. Act 2 Scene 1:Persecution 3: The Prince of Morocco knows full well that the color of his skin would be an issue with anyone in Portia’s position, but begs her to take other things into consideration. He explains that there are other ways to judge him beyond the colour of his skin, and that in any of those respects, he is more than worthy. Portia says she has accepted the puzzle of the chests, and beyond that she has no interest in the color of his skin.Persecution 4: After the Prince has failed, Portia exclaims her relief that she won’t have to marry a dark-skinned man, and hopes that if any other dark people try to win her hand, they’ll fail just as the Prince had. Portia
Like Antonio, Portia is an example of nobility. She is a fair-haired beauty with an immense power to attract. Her goodness and virtue enhance her beauty. Unlike Antonio, she is not passive, but displays energy and determination. In many ways, hers is the more forceful figure in the play. Her authority and control with which she deals and manipulates the circumstances of the play are exemplary. In Belmont, the terms of her father’s will leave her without any choice in her future husband, and she is saddened that she does not have an appropriate mate. As a dutiful daughter, however, she is compelled to accept her father’s wishes. Despite her dissatisfaction with her circumstances, she has a cheerful and optimistic nature. She is clever with words and wit and enjoys the opportunity of performing, both in Belmont and Venice. She uses her wonderful ability with words and her keen sense of humor to enliven the scenes in which she appears. Her treatment of her money reflects Bassanio’s belief that money is to be used only in the sense of helping loved ones.
She proves she is unselfish and generous. Her happiness and Antonio’s meet in Bassanio. Her ideal of mercy is unselfish generosity and she shows an understanding of Christian values. As a Christian gentlewoman, she considers it her duty to show Shylock the foolishness of his exact interpretation of the law that has no mercy. She dresses as a young lawyer and goes to court to defend Antonio. Like Shylock has demanded, she strictly interprets the law and disallows the Jew from taking a drop of Antonio’s blood when he takes his pound of flesh. Since this is impossible, Shylock begs to just be given money, but Portia is unrelenting. She cites another law that states any alien who tries to take the life of a Venetian is to lose all of his money, which will be split between the state and the person who was to be killed. As a result, Shylock loses all of his wealth. Portia has cleverly tricked Shylock at his own game. Portia is the most multi-dimensional character in the play, alternating between a beautiful woman in the remote setting of Belmont and the authoritative lawyer in Venice, who orchestrates the victory of good over evil. Nerissa
Nerissa is Portia’s woman in waiting (read: her sidekick). At the beginning of the play, she acts as a sounding board to Portia. She listens to Portia complain about her life and the unfairness of the casket contest and tells her to suck it up and be glad her father was wise enough to plan for his daughter’s future. This, of course, tells us that Nerissa is a very practical girl. Hmm. This must be why she agrees to marry Graziano if Bassanio can win Portia. Read all about it in our analysis of Graziano. she has patience
says good things about her father
Act 2, Scene 9
Love 6: Nerissa hopes that the god of love will bless Portia and bring Bassinio to her, since there is no other man who deserves her, and she can’t choose him. She thinks that only the devine intervention of Cupid could possibly bring Bassanio to Portia, and ensure that he chose the correct
chest, that only with the help of a god could love overcome blind luck. Nerissa is Portia’s maid. She acts as a backdrop to the wit displayed by Portia. Her long association with her mistress has elevated her mannerisms and behavior to the point that she now acts as a witty and intelligent person. She, too, follows the examples set by Portia in many ways: she marries a gentleman from Venice, she follows Portia to Venice, she assumes the role of a lawyer’s clerk and she takes her ring from her lover. She is to Portia what Gratiano is to Bassanio. …………………………………………………..x…………………….X……………………………….. Love 9: in order to give her husband a chance to prove his love, Portia tests him by demanding his wedding ring. Bassanio at first balks at the idea, having pledged that his wife is more important to him than anything else. Gratiano convinces him to part with the ring, though, assuring Bassanio that his wife will understand. Act 5, Scene 1
Love 10: Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands for giving up their wedding rings, and return them. Bassanio and Gratiano pledge that no matter what happens, they won’t ever again make anything more important than their wives. Jessica:CHARACTERS
Jessica is Shylock’s only daughter. She breaks her dad’s heart by running off to marry a Christian (Lorenzo) and helps herself to her dad’s ducats and some treasured family heirlooms. Being Shylock’s Daughter
Before we dismiss Jessica as a selfish jerk who steals from and abandons her dad, we should keep in mind that life at Shylock’s house is not so great. It becomes even worse when their clown/servant Lancelot leaves: “I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so,” Jessica says to Lancelot. “Our house is hell, and thou, a merry devil, / Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness” (2.3.1). Shakespeare gives us a little taste of life at Shylock’s in Act 2, Scene 5: when Shylock and Jessica appear onstage together, Shylock barks orders at his daughter (while screaming at his servant). He demands that
Jessica stay inside and “lock up [the] doors” so the sounds of music don’t drift in from the streets (2.5.5). OK, we can understand why Jessica wants to get out of Dodge, and she’s certainly not the only Shakespearean daughter to elope. But it does seem pretty cold when she trades her dead mother’s turquoise ring for a monkey after running off with Lorenzo. Her thoughtlessness devastates her father: Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal: it was my
turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor:
I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys. (3.1.14) Jessica’s Conversion
Jessica not only runs away from her father’s house, she also converts to Christianity, and both are portrayed as acts of abandonment. When Lancelot the clown says Jessica is “damned” to hell because she’s the “Jew’s daughter,” Jessica declares “I shall be saved by my husband. He hath made me a Christian” (3.5.3). The idea here is that Jessica’s marriage to a Christian man will automatically make her a Christian too. The concept comes from 1 Corinthians 7:14 in the New Testament: “The unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband.” As literary critic Janet Adelman points out in Blood Relations, “marriage appears to occur to [Jessica] largely as a way to escape” being her father’s daughter: Alack, what heinous sin is it in me
To be ashamed to be my father’s child!
But though I am a daughter to his blood,
I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3.2)
Here it becomes clear that Jessica not only hates her father’s rude “manners” but also associates Shylock’s conduct and behavior with being Jewish, which is why she can’t wait to “become a Christian.”As the daughter of Shylock, she is compelled to abandon him. The difference in their temperaments has made her circumstances intolerable. She is, although a Jew, as different from her father “as jet to ivory.” She is more at home with Christian ways than with the austerity of her father’s Jewish house. She likes Launcelot because of his capacity to introduce merriment to an otherwise gloomy
household. She shows ingenuity in disguising as a pageboy to effect her elopement. Although guilty of theft and filial ingratitude in betraying her father, she shows an understanding of the moral sins that she has committed. Her drawbacks are mitigated by her loving and exuberant nature, which is similar to Portia’s vivacity and wit.