Essay: 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.

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