Men's Control in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice
In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the scene opens to reveal a society controlled by men. Men, who live in the foreground of Venetian society, wield their power in business, government, and family life. In the background, women conduct their lives quietly. They are subservient to their husbands and fathers and are regarded as helpless and in need of male guidance in areas of decision making. Though in Shakespeare’s time such a societal structure was largely acceptable, the modern reader views the subjugation of women with aversion, and the ways in which Shakespeare presents the female characters in this play perhaps show that he too was not entirely comfortable with the unbalanced scale of power between men and women.
Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica, the three female characters in The Merchant of Venice, are bound by the strictures which society has imposed upon them. All three, however, seeking to gain the freedom to act as they please, disguise themselves as men. Once they are seen as men, the women are able to escape the societal constraints which previously limited their actions. The fact that they must disguise themselves as men in order to achieve empowerment and freedom of action encourages the reader to question the justice of the social hierarchy.
Because the setting in The Merchant of Venice is characterized by a hierarchy of gender roles in which males hold authority over females, a character like Portia’s father, one who reigns in authority over his daughter, is made possible. Additionally, the presiding social structure allows for his action of subjecting Portia to the mechanism which will determine her husband. Fortunately for Portia, she is not at all repulsed by Bassanio; however, this does not mitigate the fact that she remains powerless under male influence. Her father, in imposing the system by which she gains a husband, and Bassanio, by having the ability to approach her as a suitor and choose her as his wife, hold a great degree of power over her.
Portia laments her inability to act according to her own volition, saying, “O me, the word choose! I may neither / Choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike, so is / The will of a living daughter curbed by the will of / A dead father” (1.2.22). The extent of male dominance in Venetian society is evidenced by the high degree of authority that Portia’s father continues to hold over her life even after he is dead. Choosing a spouse is one of the most life-altering decisions a person can make, but Portia has no say in the matter. Instead, she must entrust her destiny to a system of boxes and riddles, and for the most part, she is a willing societal minion, but only when dressed as a woman.
Once Portia slips into male garb, her behavior is shockingly different. The audience sees not a restricted, powerless Portia, agonizing over the possible misfortunes of being wed to ill-complexioned...