The Merchant of Venice and Woman

Category: Literature
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The play “The Merchant of Venice” was written in the 16th century. According to, “The ideal Venetian woman was quiet, subservient and focused on the home- her role was to manage the home and family. She rarely ever left and was identified through her relationship to her male relatives. She was not a person in her own right, but rather someone’s wife, mother, daughter or sister. The most important aspect of a Venetian woman was her chastity, which meant not just virginity, but also modesty, ladylike behavior, and good manners and etiquette. The poetry of the time describes these characteristics in terms of beauty. Beautiful looks were considered to be a reflection of virtue and chastity.” During this time women were only seen in the shadows of their male family members. They were not allowed to attend school, vote, or act in theaters. In the play, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare shows us that not only can a woman be beautiful, but she can also be powerful, capable of overcoming similar obstacles as men, and above all else intelligent.

William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is a powerhouse. The basis of the play is that a merchant in Venice, Antonio must default on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. Antonio’s friend Bassanio is desperately in need of money to court Portia, a wealthy heiress who lives in the city of Belmont. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan in order to travel in style to Portia’s estate. Antonio agrees, however, is unable to make the loan himself because his own money is all invested in a number of trade ships that are still at sea. Antonio and Bassanio travel to see Shylock to seek out the loan. Shylock is very reluctant due to the long-standing grudge against Antonio, who has made a habit of berating Shylock and other Jews. Antonio refuses to apologize for his behavior but Shylock agrees to lend him the money. However, Shylock makes one speculation, If Antonio does default on the loan he would owe Shylock one pound of his skin. While this and many other things are going on in the play the main character and heroine would be considered Portia, heiress of Belmont.

Portia is the true heroine in this play because she is the only character that is not concerned about money. We can see this when she offers to give Antonio, a man she barely knows double the amount of the loan he owes to Shylock. Portia, “What, no more? Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond. Double six thousand, and then treble that, Before a friend of this description For never shall you lie by Portia’s side With an unquiet soul. You shall have gold To pay the petty debt twenty times over”. Even though Portia agrees to pay double the loan for her love Bassanio, she is still willing to do this to save lives and create peace. She breaks the mold of traditional gender roles that are placed on women of this time and also, Renaissance society in general. Shakespeare illustrates Portia having these admirable qualities that for centuries have gone unnoticed. Another female character we meet is Jessica who is Shylock’s daughter. Jessica ends up leaving her home to convert and marry a Christian, Lorenzo. Many people see Jessica as selfish, however, she is extremely brave for leaving her greedy father. In the first scene, Jessica refers to her home as, “house of hell”. Jessica is especially brave due to the time period, women in this time were meant to please their father’s. Jessica also shows strength for the willingness to convert to a different religion.

According to A Medium Corporation, “Jessica’s marriage is an almost completely unnecessary subplot. Why, then, was Jessica even included in the play?”. This is correct, Jessica is not one of the main characters in the play, however, Shakespeare put her in the play for a reason. Also according to The Medium Corporation, “As Stephanie Chidester notes, “Jessica’s behavior is not altogether surprising when one considers Shylock’s treatment of her. Shylock shows his daughter little affection or kindness ? she is his flesh and blood and therefore an extension of himself, not a person in her own right.”. Again, many people argue the Jessica was a selfish girl who stole her deceased mother’s ring and fathers money. However, given the circumstances, she could be another heroine in The Merchant of Venice. A final woman we meet in the play is Nerissa who is Portia’s handmaid. Nerissa also does not have a major role in this play, however, She joins Portia in dressing up as men to save Antonio’s life, playing the part of a law clerk. “When the audience first sees Nerissa, she is helping Portia categorize all of her suitors to analyze their good qualities if any. She is also the one who reminds Portia of Bassanio, the one, in her mind, most suited for marrying her mistress.” Nerissa could be defined as Portia’s backbone, she is her best friend and will do anything to support Portia. Another redeeming female quilty that can be seen throughout the play. Going back to Portia and her heroism, one major example of this would be the trial scene. Portia and Nerrisa dress up as men and play the part of Duke and law clerk. The duo follows behind their husbands and travels from Belmont to Venice to lend a helping hand in getting Antonio off the hook for his bond. Portia who fooled everyone in the courtroom even her husband took a huge risk by doing this because at this time women were not allowed in a courtroom. Portia’s speech was truly incredible and very inelegantly written. According to, “Portia insists on convincing him (Shylock) to be merciful as God is merciful toward us. You see that the idea of mercy in the passage has a close connection with the Christian idea of salvation.

In fact, she alludes to Christian doctrine that mercy and forgiveness are godly characteristics, and seeking justice without showing mercy, Shylock could face damnation, because by doing this he would disobey the law of God.” At the end of the trail, Portia claimed that Shylock only agreed to take Antiono’s skin and nothing else, for example, blood. Which in fact did get Antonio off the hook for the bond. If it were not for her appearance at the trial and the unique manipulation of the terms set upon Antonio, it is a good chance Shylock would have received the initial agreement and Antonio would be dead. Portia did not just think about herself or her lover Bassino. She brought sympathy to both parties, something the opposite gender would not have done. This in itself shows strength and power something that the typical Renaissance woman was said not to have. When Portia and Bassanio first met she gifted him with a ring and told him to never give it away or lose it for this is a token of love and commitment. Many critics first take this as Portia being submissive because legally, in the 16th century, a marriage made a man master over his wife and her property. However, Portia had a leg up because she’s giving her soon-to-be husband more than he can possibly give her in return. At the end of the court scene, Bassanio still not knowing the lawyer was his wife asked what he could do for saving the life of his friend. She responded by saying she wanted his ring. Bassanio would not give it up at first but later gifted it back to her breaking his promise. Once again, Portia gains another leg up on her husband. Portia is the heiress of Belmont and when her father passed away he devised a puzzle of three caskets in his will. One of which was made of gold, another of silver, and the third one lead. Her sutors would come and pick one if they choose the right one Portia were to marry this man.

However, if the chose wrong they were to never marry again. In the play, there were a total of three suitors. The first suitor to try his luck was the Prince of Morocco, he chose the gold casket which had an inscription that said, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”. This showed the Prince was a greedy man. The second suitor was Prince of Aargon who chose the silver casket which said, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”. Aargon chose the silver casket because he was only in it for Portia’s riches. Bassino’s winds up picking the right casket, which was the lead one which had an inscription that said, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. The lead casket was meant to have inner beauty because inside was a picture of Portia. Many people take this as Portia being weak and submissive by her father but she is doing this for the loyalty to him. Portia was able to joke out two of the other suitors and even while dealing with this hardship this shows that she is a very strong character. The Victorian time period was not one for women. Again, women could not go to school, vote, or even leave the home without a male relative, whether it be a father, brother or husband. Women could only leave to attend social events or church services, and even then, they traveled heavily veiled and in private gondolas from doorstep to doorstep. There are many debates if Shakespeare was a sexist or if his plays just mirrors the sexism of his time. Women could not even act in plays during this time. This means that during the trial scene when Portia and Nerissa dress up as men, during the play it was actually men dressing up as women who were dressing up as men. During this time women had no freedom. The play, The Merchant of Venice makes women seem more independent and outspoken.

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