Essay: William Shakespeare – The Merchant of Venice

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  • William Shakespeare - The Merchant of Venice
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In William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’, his protagonist Portia conforms to the 16th century’s patriarchal society while conveying that women are mistreated and have no power within traditional Venation society.

William Shakespeare was an English poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. His works consists of approximately 39 plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems. His plays are extremely influential on modern society as well as traditional and post-modern societies.

The role that women play within many Shakespearian plays often highlights their perseverance, strength, and intelligence. This indicates that Shakespeare’s understanding is that one day women will be on equal ground with men. However, the conclusion of majority of his work ends with a powerful, independent woman settling back into society with her husband, highlighting the difficulties women face over a variety of eras.

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 of power within the patriarchal society. In later scenes, when Portia and Nerissa push the boundaries of their disguise, they specifically emphasize the nature of 16th century culture towards women, by deceiving their husbands to give up their promise rings in lieu of the male’s superior relationships. Further, post-modern feminist audiences would argue that Shakespeare’s altering of Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica’s gender to suit the societal values of Venice is a direct attack on the patriarchal expectations. Alternatively, audiences may argue the fact that they are not caught and it is kept a private matter, ] proves that while women are manipulative and aspire break free, they were still undervalued and mistreated by men in the 16th century.

The post-modern and socialist feminist audiences would argue that play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is about the mistreatment of women and lack of power and privilege of wealth within society. Firstly, Portia’s father binds his daughter and her estate to caskets which controls who she marries even after his death, she then has to imitate a man to demonstrate her intellectual ability and gain power within the courts and be able to fight for her husband, Bassanio and his accomplice, Antonio to contest against a heinous Jew. Lastly, in an attempt to show her small sum of power a ring is given to Bassanio; she has no power in society although over her husband she has little influence within the bedroom. Shakespeare manipulates the caskets, the disguise and the rings to represent women’s lack of power in the public sphere compared to the power within the bedroom.

Shakespeare establishes the women’s struggle for power within the patriarchal society throughout the plot as well as directly through Portia, using many different aesthetic features. Portia’s struggle begins with the use of the caskets her father leaves behind to determine who she marries and claims all her inherited wealth, “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father?” (1:2:24-25). Shakespeare’s manipulation of the term ‘will’ highlights that her father ignores her desires, forcing her to marry according to his wishes. Before the father passed away he manipulates the casket choice to represent his daughter, believing that only a man worthy would choose this specific casket, further highlighting that only a man can correctly chose in marriage. The type of casket would determine the type of man that was trying to marry her, there was a golden casket, a silver casket and a lead casket. Shakespeare used the caskets as symbols to positions the audience to view women as victims within the patriarchal society, as women are undervalued and dominated by men.

A prince by the name of Morocco was one of the men to try his luck with Portia, he selected the golden casket as he believed Portia was beautiful. Once he opened the golden casket there was a carrion Death inside, in one of the empty eyes there was a idiom that read, “All that glisters is not gold” (page 85). The gold casket is a symbol used to display that pretty, shiny, expensive things should not be so highly valued as not everything should be based upon appearance. Morocco is very opinionated when it comes to appearances as he says “Mislike me not on my complexion” (2:1:1) when he first speaks to Portia and yet he chooses the caskets based on his assumption on appearances. This represents the traditional values men perceived in the 16th century, that women were ornaments and valued on appearance, much like the gold and other ornaments they possessed.

Prince of Arragon is the next to attempt to marry Portia, as he was selecting his caskets he says, “I will not chose what many man desire… why then, to thee, thou silver treasure house!”. Once he chose the silver casket he opened it to see a fool’s head, underneath was a scroll that read, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”. Shakespeare uses allusion to reference to the fact that silver is used by merchants in trade and that many men assume wealth and privilege is linked to this wealth however it is a fool’s commodity. Shakespeare displays irony through the fact that the father is trading his daughter through marriage for wealth similar to a ‘fool’s’ commodity. This again leaves Portia with no voice, as she is left to her dead father’s authorisations to turn these money seeking men away.

Shakespeare’s ideologies of the patriarchal society is correctly represented through the caskets when Bassanio accurately selects the lead casket to attain his fortune. Bassanio’s wise words before picking the lead casket were, “To render them redoubted… You shall see ‘tis purchased by weight, which therein works a miracle in nature, Making them lightest that wear most of it” (3:2:87-93). This represents that he recognises men are consumed by silver, however, due to his experiences, “showing a more of a swelling port” (1:1:125), he views silver as a quick fix. Whereas, Bassanio views Portia as more of a long lasting pot of wealth, “The continent and summary of my fortune.” (3:2:130), further showing that all men are consumed by the need for wealth. The lead casket resembles Portia and thus women in the 16th century and reads, “dull lead, with warning all as blunt… who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” (page 83), the terms ‘blunt’, ‘must’ and ‘hazard’ highlight that men determine how women are perceived due to their subordinate role in society. The father uses the lead as a warning representing Portia as a strong women that needs a strong man to force her to conform to societal norms. This displays that in the 16th century women were overly controlled, it is evident to the post-modern audience that even after her father’s death she is still bound by him, not only does he control her, but another man is required to fill his position to control her after his death. link

Portia is forced to hide her education, she strong willed personality and her gender in the public sphere, due to the patriarchal expectations of the 16th century. The lack of power women possess is emphasised when Portia defends her husband Bassanio and Antonio, in disguise as a man; “Is sum of something – which, to term in gross, Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised. (page 109), Portia this deliberately highlights that fact that Portia represents herself as a weak female to conform to her new husband’s expectations since this is a societal norm. However, Shakespeare highlights that women strive for more out of their life as they are not ‘unschooled’, ‘unlessoned’ or ‘unpractised’; “They shall think we are accomplished with what we lack… When we are both accoutered like young men” (page 124). Portia states this when explaining the plan to Nerissa as men have large amounts of power within the court as well as in society, yet women are found ‘lacking’ in knowledge, however this is not the reality as proven through Portia’s actions in court, “Tarry a little there is something else this bond doth give the hear no jot of blood” (page 144).

This meaning Shylock is unable to take his pound of flesh or he will then be charged, the quote proved that Portia was highly educated and able to successfully defend Antonio in court, although she was forced to argue in court dressed as a man otherwise she would have no power due to women being undervalued. Ultimately, the system is viewed as corrupt by social feminist audiences as women are perceived as disempowered in the 16th century’s patriarchal society with the lack of respect towards them and the little power they have within Venice. The mistreatment continues throughout the plot when Portia insists Bassanio stays loyal to his wedding ring and he fails to do so.

Lastly, Shakespeare displays the small amount of power women have in the private sphere as with the ring she gives Bassanio when they marry. This ring is a symbol of her authority, as women do not have control within society, although when the relationship is taken to the bedroom the women can control the men. “I give them with this ring, Which when you part from, lose, or give away, Let it presage the ruin of your love And be my vantage to exclaim on you” (3:2:171-174). The ring is used as a symbol for her power and trust, women have this authority due to the fact that women manipulate their body as a tool to control men through their sexual desires, this proves their fight for dominance and power even within the private sphere. Further on, Bassanio devalues the ring after giving it away when Antonio says, “Let him have the ring. Let his deservings, and my love withal, Be valued ’gainst your wife’s commandment.” (page 148), proving that he does not place the same value on the ring or his wife’s commandment. Bassanio later then mocks Portia’s value towards the ring, “Why, I were best to cut my left And swear I lost the ring defending it.”. The traditional male value towards women’s desires is further evident in Gratiano’s statement, “About a hoop of gold, a paltry ring” (page 164), stating that it is common in Venation society to devalue the wife, the commitment and the wife’s commands. It is only when Portia threatens the males right to sexual gratification within the bedroom, this is when the male’s relent, “I will not deny him anything I have… not my body nor my husbands bed” (Page 166), therefore Shakespeare demonstrates that the only power women have within society is manipulating men through their body which clearly highlights that they are undervalued within society.

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