There could be various reasons why Shakespeare introduced crossdressing into his writings. One of which is to show gender disparity Other reasons could be Shakespeare’s attempt to change people’s mindset about gender identity. This can be seen in the way how Shakespeare portrays Antonio in his play ‘The Merchant of Venice’.
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He is particularly close to his male friend Bassanio and is ready to give up his life for him. Throughout the play, Antonio isn’t attracted toward and female character which shows that Shakespeare wanted to talk about gender identity. In this paper we will talk about gender disparity through cross dressing.
In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, we can see gender dominance through in many different scenes. The men of the Shakespearean era have a powerful status, unlike the women. This can be seen in Jessica’s new freedom and power when dressed as a pageboy and Portia’s and Nerissa’s confidence in the court of law when they disguise as males. Through these two instances of cross-dressing, Shakespeare shows the rewards of being male in a male dominated society.
All the three women take part in cross-dressing as a means of doing something which they couldn’t have while dressed as a female, the consequences vary as there are different reasons for doing so and different outcomes of their actions. For example, Jessica who is the daughter of Shylock, the use of cross-dressing has reasons which are not very important to the play but they do show the gender disparity. She uses a page boy’s outfit to escape from her father, the jew, and run away with her lover, Lorenzo.
After her disguise into a boy, Jessica shows her shame because of this transformation. The shame Jessica feels in posing as a man is similar to the shame she feels because she is leaving her old father all by himself and also stealing his money and belongings which mean the world to him. Jessica’s guilt shows the strong gender disparity that existed by telling the audience that she cannot escape her womanhood, in that society without facing the consequences. Jessica displays how controlled women were at the time where they couldn’t even go out freely and so therefore she disguises herself into a boy.
The fact that Jessica is forced to disguise herself as a male in order to gain freedom from her father and run away shows the weakness of women in Shakespeare’s time. Another thing that shows Jessica’s low social respect is that she agreed to be Lorenzo’s torch-bearer. Shakespeare emphasizes on “torch-bearer” because it provokes the image of a servant or some owned person, which the audience thinks what Jessica will become after her marriage with Lorenzo.
This practice of cross-dressing becomes more important later in the play because the women, specifically Portia is set out to do something which would be considered a crime in a typical conservative society. The taking on a male attire provides empowerment for the otherwise weak women. Jessica’s cross-dressing worked out well, but it was ineffective in changing the thinking of the society.
In Portia’s case, the incentive to cross dress was quite convincing as she had to do something which demanded her being a man in that era. Shakespeare introduces Portia which makes the audience immediately realize her wealth and how affluent she is. Not only is Portia rich and stunningly beautiful, but she is also quite witty and intelligent.
Her mention of “device of law” and “decrees” shows her understanding of legal language and law, showing its importance toward the end. However, it is observed early in the play that Portia’s potential is constrained by her gender, as she was never given an opportunity to use it. Only because she is female, Portia has to ‘be a woman’ and despite her apparent intelligence and ability she isn’t given the opportunity to go out and utilize her intelligence. She is even controlled by her dead father and therefore has no independence in her life.
Her conversation with 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” demonstrates her obedience towards her father but also shows how she is weak as she is a woman. By taking on a male attire, Portia is able to speak for herself and use her abilities for good use for the first time which she earlier couldn’t while being herself-a woman.
Portia stands in the court of law and publicly advocates for Antonio. She solely depends on personal knowledge, logic, and all other forms of education which were denied to women. Although it was assumed that the audience would be shocked by seeing Portia in the courtroom filled with men, we soon come to know that she understands and can use the law better than anyone including the Duke himself. Shylock’s ironic comment –”There is no power in the tongue of man /to alter me” funnily shows that it is ultimately a woman who guarantees Antonio’s safety. Women working outside the home, freely can be seen most prominently through Portia’s character.
Unlike Jessica, Shakespeare has depicted Portia to be strong and self-sufficient. Portia is disguised as a man but not just for the sake of it. She includes many qualities that a man has. She changes her voice to that between a man and a boy, she changes her mincing steps into a manly stride, and moreover shows confidence that she lacked when she was in her female form. Portia also tries to bring about a change in the society by provoking other women to step up. She encourages Nerissa to dress up as a man and possibly helped her increase her confidence.
Through many ways, Shakespeare has tried to show how gender disparity existed in his time and he has written in such a way that he could change this norm. Shakespeare was not just a writer, but he wanted to change the society, for good. He portrays Portia, the heiress of Belmont as a powerful lady in her kingdom. The world only knew her to be wealthy and beautiful. But Shakespeare saw beyond that. He tried telling the audience how talented she was. Just because she is a woman didn’t mean she had no talent that could be useful in the world.
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