Essay about Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice

1291 Words Dec 3rd, 2012 6 Pages
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. Although the three women all partake in cross-dressing as a means of undermining patriarchal constraint, the consequences vary as there are several …show more content…
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.

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