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Gender in Merchant of Venice

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Jesica Tran

on 11 June 2014

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Transcript of Gender in Merchant of Venice

Dominant male characters
Dominant Female characters
What is gender?
The state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)
How was gender shown in the Merchant of Venice?
In the 16th century, women were often portrayed in films and books as vulnerable, weak and submissive. Men were often portrayed as strong, brave and independent. Shakespeare was one of the few authors who challenged this stereotypical image in society. In Merchant of Venice he showed Portia as a submissive lady who had to follow her father’s will. Near the end of the play, however, she turned out to be a very strong, intelligent and independent lady. The men were shown as dominant at first too, however, their roles were switched when the husbands of Nerissa and Portia were left apologising for their stupidity after giving away special gifts.
Scenes that show dominant male characters
The Will of Portia's father
ACT 1 SCENE 2: Belmont. A room in Portia’s house
Portia and Nerissa are talking about the will, Portia’s father left. This will states that several suitors will have the right to choose out of three caskets. The suitor that chooses the casket with Portia’s portrait will get to marry her. Portia especially, is upset that she doesn’t have a choice in who she marries. Nerissa, after hearing this tries to defend her father saying that he wrote the will with good intentions.

My daughter, Portia, will marry the man who chooses the casket with her picture in it
-Portia's father
“I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father”
- Portia (Opinion on father’s will) (ACT 1 SCENE 2)

“Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?”
- Portia (ACT 1 SCENE 2)

These two quotes show how Portia had no choice over her future. Whatever opinions she may have had would have been buried as she was expected to follow whatever her father said. This was typical in those years and was also seen in another scene between Jessica and Shylock, Both then and now women and young females are expected to follow orders of the father. This was gender discrimination as you would never hear of a man expected to follow such orders. Often men had more privileges and freedom to do what they pleased.
Scenes that show dominant female characters
"Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their death have good inspirations”
- Nerissa (ACT 1 SCENE 2)

Nerissa tries to defend the father saying that he had good intentions whilst writing the will. Although possibly true, why was it that wealthy men weren't bound by such pieces of paper? This scene is a classic portrayal of how women were often forced to obey and follow orders from males or elders.

Portia acting as a lawyer (Balthazar)
ACT 4 SCENE 1: Venice. A court of justice
Portia dresses up as a young male lawyer to try solve Shylock and Antonio’s case. At first we are led to believe that she will lose but at the last minute she thinks quickly, and intelligently makes rebuts against the bond and the deed. She manages to save Antonio’s life and gain Shylock’s wealth which goes to Antonio.

“They shall think we are accomplished with that we lack”
- Portia (ACT 3 SCENE 4)

This quote shows that Portia knows that the husbands will be suprised if they hear that Portia and Nerissa dressed up as men and acted as lawyers. It was expected back then that only men had the capacity to handle such jobs as lawyers so Portia had no choice but to disguise herself as a man to become a lawyer. Society during that time, believed that women weren’t intelligent enough to take on such roles.
• “How honourable ladies sought my love, which I denying, they fell sick and died;”
- Portia (ACT 3 SCENE 4)

Men were expected to be proud and independent so this quote was Portia's perspective as to how men were supposed to act during that time. This scene was one of the biggest turning points in sex discrimination. The apparent submissive Portia became an intelligent lawyer and took over roles that a male would normally have.

The Exchange of Rings
ACT 5 SCENE 1: Belmont. Avenue to Portia’s house
This scene takes place after Portia and Nerissa (dressed as lawyers) take the rings away from Gratiano and Bassanio. When Gratiano and Bassanio arrive at Portia’s house, Portia and Nerissa immediately accuse them of not taking their relationships seriously. They take dominant roles as they play around with the men to an extent where the men are apologising for their mistakes.

“What should I say, sweet lady?
I was enforced to send it after him;
I was beset with shame and courtesy;”
- Bassanio

The biggest change in male roles; the males went from being the controlling ones to the submissive ones offering their apologies. The blue and dark tones of this scene was to emphasise the mood of the situation, where, Bassanio and Gratiano are in despair as they can't get their rings back and Portia and Nerissa are spouting their opinions and talking back to the husbands in anger.
How was society's attitude towards gender challenged in this play?
As mentioned before, Shakespeare wasn't new to challenging society's opinions and the Merchant of Venice was one of the best plays that challenged society's attitude towards the roles of certain genders. Not only did Portia play the exact opposite of what a female was expected to be like, but she also combined certain aspects of femininity with male attributes.
By: Jesica Tran
Full transcript