Men's Control in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

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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 Porti...

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...e disguised as men are completely incongruous with the societal structure which dominates their world.

It seems no coincidence that Shakespeare had all three female characters in the play disguise themselves as men. Nor does it seem a coincidence that while disguised, each woman rebels against the social structure which prohibits her to do certain things and make certain decisions simply because she is a woman. Under male disguises, the women are able to act with the same freedoms men possess. Thus, it is plausible to suppose that Shakespeare meant to make a statement about the social hierarchy prevalent in the world in which he lived, encouraging a reevaluation of its fairness. Whatever Shakespeare meant to say about the issue, for today’s audiences, The Merchant of Venice certainly encourages questioning the justice of its male-dominated social hierarchy.
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