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The Role of a Renaissance Woman

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steph shuker

on 26 October 2015

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Transcript of The Role of a Renaissance Woman

The Roles of Women in the Merchant of Venice and the Renaissance
The Role of a Renaissance Woman
Dictionary.com describes gender roles as “a set of behaviors that indicates one's gender, [specifically] the image projected by a person that identifies their femaleness or maleness; an overt public presentation of gender identity”. In a sense, what makes a man a man and what makes a woman a woman. Over the course of millions and millions of years, the idea of how a gender must act has changed and continues to change drastically. In our modern day and age, the big idea is equality and steps are taken to erase any discrimination or unfairness in society towards gender. Today, people are more lenient regarding what is socially acceptable in the behaviours of men versus women; however, in the Renaissance the status was set-in-stone. Because of these standards, the world may never know the artistic, academic, or musical potential of the women of the Renaissance age.
What was a Renaissance woman?
What was a Renaissance woman? If you were a woman in the Renaissance, you were considered the legal property of a man, be it your husband or your father. Though what you did with your day would be determined by your social class, the overall expectation of how you were supposed to act was very straightforward. If you did not fit the standard, you were vilified.

A woman in the Renaissance was to be rarely seen and never heard.
She had to be proper and tidy at all times.
She was idealistically quiet and always respectful.
She enjoyed the attention she got from men for being dainty and fragile.
She was loyal to her husband or father and had no problem being completely controlled by him.
She had to be obedient, modest, chaste, patient, and humble.
She can never be clever or witty and must never argue.
She was not to speak her mind unless her ideas reflected those of men.
She was almost completely powerless and entirely dependent on men.

There were three classes of women based on wealth which extends the role of a woman depending on her class. A lower-classed woman was expected to be the perfect housewife and help her husband. However, most of the families of poorer women could not afford to marry her off. Often these women would turn to prostitution or join covenants to work as servants for nuns. A middle class woman was expected to work for her husband and then go home and take care of the household and children. Middle and working class women were seen in the streets more than any other of the classes and often met with other women at communal wells to trade gossip and news. Upper class women were usually not expected or even allowed to leave the house to work. In fact, even breast feeding was considered a lower class job, so most babies from wealthy families were sent out to wet nurses to be raised. Upper class women were the only women allowed to express themselves, but every opinion of theirs carried a strong male influence.

Regardless of a woman’s social class, politics were reserved for men from very high social classes. Only some men could vote, and women were completely out of question because they were considered to lack judgment. Women were also forbidden to be involved in medicine, politics, or law. Women were not allowed to participate in theatre and any female roles were played by young boys. Acting and play-writing was considered shameful for women. However, some jobs allowed women to he hired, though for the same work, they would be paid less than men. If they took jobs in painting, they would be under the control of a man. If they took up writing, their literatures were mainly religious works or translations.

Marriage was very important to a woman in this era. Usually in her mid-teens, a woman would be married off to a man in his thirties. Fathers would choose a husband for her daughter who could strengthen their economic and social position in the society. When a woman was to be married, she had to have a dowry which was basically from the father to the husband to pay for the costs of keeping a wife and children. The husband would use the money to invest in property or business. Some families, however, would only have enough money to marry off one daughter. An unmarried woman was not permitted to live alone and she would be sent to live with a male relative or to join a covenant. The dowry of a nun was significantly smaller.

In a marriage, the husband had full authority, dominance, and control in the household. His first duty was to love his wife, though his second duty was to rule his wife because she was seen as incapable of making decisions to run a household. When signing the marriage contract, a woman agrees to give herself up completely to the control of her husband. In the marriage she is obedient and tries to please him anyway she can while remaining still within the social norms of being a woman. She is supposed to take care of the home, have children, and keep a dignified and chaste appearance to bring honour to both her own family and her husband’s. There was no divorce, so a marriage lasted as until the husband or wife died. Because of the age gap between the husband and wife, many women were encouraged by their families to remarry once their husband died to maintain alliances with other families.
Having a child was considered one of the highest honours for a woman in the Renaissance because children were considered a blessing from God and continued the existence of the society. A woman was generally expected to have a baby every two years; however families usually did not grow to be too big in size because most babies and children died from diseases. There was a lot of pride in being a mother, especially the mother of a male child because sons were very important in continuing the family linage.
The education of the child was the responsibility of the mother if they were wealthy enough. If the child was a girl, she might be boarded to a covenant where the nuns would teach her skills to become a better housewife when she is old enough. She would learn skills like sewing, embroidery, cleaning, reading, and writing. She would also be taught how to behave in public and how to behave for their husbands. The teacher, if not a nun, would be male. If the daughter belonged to a country family, she would be taught skills to work more efficiently on a farm so that the family could send her out to be hired in labour. If the daughter was not strong enough, she was no use to the family and she would be advised to practice chastity to be more desirable to a wealthier husband. Poor mothers would educate their children to the extent of their own education.

Men decided what was beautiful and what was not. It was thought that God made humans so that one gender had what the other was lacking. Men were graced with wit, judgment, and intelligence, thus women were superior to men only in physical beauty. Beauty was an important quality in life for women and many women were valued because of their physical features. In the Renaissance, a woman who was full-figured with blond hair, pale skin, and red lips was considered the epitome of beauty.
Why were women treated this way?
It is thought by many historians today that women were treated this way to reserve structure in a society. It is true that they believed women were less capable than men, but they were alienated to restrict change in the society. For example, if a woman chose to work outside the home, she was paid less and treated unfairly to discourage women from doing so. They were educated inside the boundaries that would allow them to think it was right to be the property of men. Education was viewed as a way of raising social consciousness which could have upset the traditional values and social norms in the society. Women had virtually no control over their small role in society.

In the Merchant of Venice, Portia proves her intelligence and independence over and over again which would be considered unheard of in the Renaissance era. However proof of her subjugation as a woman shows through, for example when she dresses as a boy to go to court – it is because women are forbidden. Furthermore, when Bassanio has won Portia’s hand in marriage, Portia tells him:

You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am. Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself,
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich,
That only to stand high in your account
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is sum of something which, to term in gross,
Is an unlesson'd girl, unschool'd, unpractis'd;
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn; (3.2.151-162)
By this Portia is saying that she wishes she could be better in all accounts to honour Bassanio as her husband. She continues on to say “This house, these servants, and this same myself / Are yours, my lord’s. (3.2.170-171)” which proves how in the Renaissance time a woman must give up everything she owns, including her own self, to her husband in marriage.
Comparing Past to Present
Women today are a lot different from women in the renaissance. Today women have more freedom of choice and action. In the renaissance, men controlled women, whether it be their husband, father or relative.
As said by Nerissa in Scene 2, Act 1.
"If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father's will, if you should refuse to accept him" this shows how Portia's father had a set marriage planned out for her when he died. Women now have their own choice of lifestyle and religion, unlike in the play, where for example, Jessica was forced to be Jewish because her father was and marrying a Christian was a very bold move. Women today are able to get jobs that they were not able to get in renaissance times, like when Portia has to dress up as a man to get into the courthouse. Where as present times, many women are lawyers or judges. Today, women have many more responsibilities, whereas in the renaissance their main objective was to have children. Women's reputations have evolved to almost equal to men, but in some places they are still treated with less respect.
Women are good role models because they have helped us accomplish many things for the benefit of society. The Alberta Five who helped develop the persons case, Joan of Arc who helped take back France in battle, and Amelia Earhart who was the first woman to fly from Hawaii to California. They are all positive role models showing that women are capable of doing great things. These women and many others show how women are capable of being strong leaders. They set an example of how all women should be like, and how they should fight for what they believe in. Women are strong, positive people capable of anything they put their mind to, and these women are a few of the many examples of powerful women in history.
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Song: 'Stupid Girls' by Pink
This song relates to how women throughout the Renaissance conformed to society in order to be accepted. It shows how even today there are problems in which ladies must act a certain way in order to fit in. It relates to the Merchant of Venice because Portia and Nerissa must dress like boys to be heard in court. They must obey society's rules because that is what is expected of them. This song shows a modern twist on that perspective.
Gender Roles in the Merchant of Venice
Nerissa and Portia encounter gender role expectations a lot, especially in the court scene because they have to dress like men to get in. Women were not accepted or heard from the court, it was reserved for a certain class of men. This is an example of how small the role of women is.
However, you see the gender roles reverse in the play at the end when Portia and Nerissa play a joke on Gratianio and Bassanio. They obviously have all the control in the situation, or at least most of it. This goes against what is known about gender roles in the Renaissance.
Shakespeare did stuff like this for shock-value to get a reaction from his audience. A woman acting like Portia or Nerissa for that matter in that situation in the Renaissance would be utterly unacceptable. The woman would be considered outspoken and rude. The woman would not be liked because she does not fit the image.
Gender role- the expression of attitudes that indicate to others the degree of your maleness or femaleness; "your gender role is the public expression of your gender identity"
Equality-the state of being equal, in status, rights, and opportunities.
Inequality-the difference in circumstances, not receiving the same treatment as another person.
What about women do you think makes them strong role models?
What do you think it would be like to be controlled completely by another person?
In what ways would living in the Renaissance as a woman be easier than living in today's world and vice versa?
Another example of a situation in the Merchant of Venice in which gender roles present themselves is the whole idea of the contest Portia's dad set up for her marriage.
She is insistent on following her father's wishes even after death because he is ultimately in charge of her until she is married because she is a woman. In the Renaissance, fathers owned their daughters until they were married off.
Furthermore,the gender role topic was there throughout the entire play, representing the unequal treatment towards women, even when it was not the focus of the scene. For example, the entire business world was dominated by men (i.e. moneylending). There were no females because they were thought incapable of work such as that.
“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)
In this quote from the play, Portia is lamenting her inability to choose her husband. Marriage is a huge life-altering step and she has absolutely no control over it.
Another example of the oppression of Renaissance women in the play is Jessica. Though she and Lorenzo want to marry each other, Shylock does not allow it because Lorenzo is Christian. Jessica is forced to obey, which is why she runs away and elopes. Jessica, being a woman and a Jew would have faced much more persecution and driscimination.
At the time of the play, it would have been uncomfortable for most theater-goers to see the power and confidence Portia and Nerissa have in the Merchant of Venice. It really breaks away from the established conformist society that does not allow it.

It would have been weird for them to see an intelligent woman who is allowed to voice her opinion and take control of situations over her husband.
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