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Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice

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In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, gender roles are explored, culminating in two distinct scenes of cross-dressing. The men of Elizabethan society enjoy a prominent status based solely on gender, to which women are clearly outsiders. This is particularly evident in Jessica’s newfound freedom when dressed as a pageboy in Act 2 and Portia’s and Nerissa’s immediate elevation in social standing when they take on male personas in Act 4. Through these two instances of cross-dressing, Shakespeare presents class not in terms of socioeconomic status but in the benefits of being male.

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Although the three women all partake in cross-dressing as a means of undermining patriarchal constraint, the consequences vary as there are several interesting discrepancies in the motivation and outcome of the action. With regards to Jessica’s character, the use of cross-dressing demonstrates patriarchal usurpation on a relatively small scale. Her donning of a young page’s outfit in order to elope with Lorenzo is the first instance of cross-dressing within Merchant of Venice.

In her act of transformation, Jessica indicates her shame in converting from female to male: “I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me, /For I am much ashamed of my exchange” (2. 6. 34-35). The shame Jessica feels in posing as a man parallels the shame she feels at her desertion of her father’s house and subsequent thievery. Jessica’s guilt exposes the constrictive nature of gender roles by enforcing that she cannot escape her established position in society without consequences, be they seen or simply felt internally.

Although Jessica is seemingly subverting the patriarchal stratification, she is in fact still subservient to her male counterpart. Jessica’s disguise establishes a fraternal (as opposed to romantic) relationship between her and Lorenzo, demonstrating the independence and freedom men have which women are denied. In order for Jessica to leave her father’s house and not arouse the suspicion of the surrounding society, she must masquerade as a male: women were not permitted to go about town freely and without an appropriate escort.

The very fact that Jessica is forced to pose as a male in order to gain freedom –thus shirking the cultural norm –highlights the subjugation of women in Shakespeare’s time. Further enforcing Jessica’s lower social standing is her acceptance to be Lorenzo’s torch-bearer. Shakespeare provides a negative connotation because “torch-bearer” insinuates the image of a servant or otherwise owned individual, which the audience equates with what Jessica will become after her marriage ceremony.

Other less pronounced limitations arise in regards to Jessica’s transvesting. The practice of cross-dressing becomes exceedingly important to practical applications later in the play because the women, specifically Portia, must interact with mainstream society. The resulting consequence of taking on a male facade ultimately provides empowerment for the otherwise subjugated women. Jessica’s cross-dressing, though it was insightful and served its purpose well, remains ineffective and powerless to change Lorenzo or impact society in any way.

In Portia’s case, however, the potential for change exists because her character actively undercuts male conceptions of female frailty and inability, unlike Jessica’s enforcement of that very claim. Shakespeare initially introduces Portia in a way that her wealth and socioeconomic status are immediately evident. Not only is Portia rich and stunningly beautiful, but she rounds out the image of a true Renaissance woman with her wit and intelligence. By allowing Portia to use rhetoric of law in Act 1 Scene 2, Shakespeare attests to Portia’s cunning talent.

Her mention of “device of law” and “decrees” conveys her understanding of legal language and practice, foreshadowing her importance later in the play. However, it appears early on that Portia’s potential remains ineffectual and constrained by her gender, as she is not given an opportunity to implement it. Solely because she is female, Portia is subject to the limitations of patriarchal society despite her apparent intelligence and ability. She is controlled by her father (even in death) and therefore holds no independent control over her life.

Her lament to Nerissa; “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, /So is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (1. 2. 21-23) demonstrates her obedience but even more importantly evokes her inferior status. By taking on a male persona Portia is able, for the first time, to take unhindered control of her fate. More so than any of the other women, Portia cross-dresses out of her own free will and desire to save Antonio. She has no immediate bond to Antonio and thus could have easily chosen to leave the situation to resolve itself.

However, she chooses to insert herself into the situation and consequently debunks preconceived notions regarding her gender. Portia implements the “thousand raw tricks of these bragging jacks” (3. 5. 77) in order to convincingly mimic men and take full advantage of their authority in society. Traditionally, men have dismissed women as illogical and frail beings in order to keep them subservient. In Act 4, Portia demonstrates the fallacy of this notion through her logical (albeit manipulative) freeing of Antonio. Disguised as a man (Balthasar), Portia effectively intrudes upon the fraternal arena of the courtroom.

She publically engages in the practice of law, a profession which depends almost entirely on personal knowledge of history and precedent, on logic and reasoning, and on rhetoric; all areas of education which were at the time denied to women. Despite the assumption that the intended audience would most likely be aghast at Portia’s presence in the male-dominated courtroom, it is soon evident that she understands and manipulates the law better than anyone, including the Duke of Venice himself. Shylock’s ironic comment –“There is no power in the tongue of man /to alter me” (4. 1. 38-239) –humorously shows the weakness of the patriarchy as it is ultimately a woman who guarantees Antonio’s safety. During this scene the male characters remain oblivious: the audience members are the only ones privy the dramatic irony taking place. Thus, the commentary’s weight is instead directed at the audience, rather than other players, transcending the presumed boundaries imposed by the theatre and instead impacting everyday life. The idea of women operating outside the constraints of gender subservience arises most prominently through Portia’s disguise and entrance into the public scene.

Unlike Jessica’s passive, submissive transgender episode, Shakespeare enabled Portia’s character to dominate Act 4 and develop a strong identity throughout the courtroom scene. The audience’s attention is drawn to Portia’s masculine traits through her ability to govern the drama and manipulate the scene to her advantage. Portia even inspires other women to transcend their typical roles as defined by gender: Nerissa, also empowered by her masculine guise, immediately follows Portia’s lead when the two decide to test their future husbands’ loyalty by skillfully manipulating them into parting with their rings.

Through the medium of Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare illustrates society’s unjustly established roles for women while simultaneously revealing potential reactions to such concepts. It can be stated that Shakespeare has contradicted the conceived limitations of women in Elizabethan society. Jessica, though she is portrayed as a submissive character which remains reactive rather than proactive, nevertheless breaks the constrictive binds of her gender and leaves the oppression of her father and his household.

Portia, arguably the most instrumental character of the play, influenced the plot’s development as a result of her deftness, intelligence, and manipulative ability despite being female. Regardless, these would-be feminists all meet the same fate: Nerissa, Jessica, and Portia are once again reined in by men as the curtains fall and now, bound in marriage, the women are once again left subservient to their male partners, thus capitulating to society’s subconscious desire for the constraint of patriarchal superiority.

Cite this Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice

Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice. (2017, Jan 24). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/cross-dressing-in-merchant-of-venice/

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