Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice exemplifies a principle that is as unfortunately true in our time as it was in his - he who has money also has love, sex, and above all, power. In this case, the use of 'he' is deliberate; 'she,' in the Elizabethan era, rarely had either financial independence or much control over the course of her life. Portia, the deceitful heroine of the play, is a major exception. To put it bluntly, Portia is enormously rich. This unique position allows her to meddle in the affairs of the unsuspecting and somewhat dim male characters, and eventually gives her unprecedented power of self-determination. However, the play is more than a tale of feminine wiles overcoming male dullness of wit. Portia's wealth and intelligence may fuel her successes in marriage and the courtroom, but in each case it is her ability to usurp traditionally masculine roles that guarantees her victory. As Portia exploits the codependence of wealth, masculinity, and public power in her society, she becomes the only woman in the play who consistently controls her own destiny.
Before we move to the main argument, there is a question to be answered: what did it mean to be masculine or feminine in the Elizabethan era? Russ McDonald's The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare is an excellent source in making this distinction. According to McDonald, women were expected to concern themselves with marriage and motherhood only, and to submit themselves to their fathers and then their husbands in all ways. Considered "weaker vessels," women were not held to have either "strength or constancy of mind." Subordination, submission, and skill in caregiving were valued in women, and they we...
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...ligent, and sometimes vicious character, in her society it is not acceptable for her to be a strong, intelligent, vicious woman. Sadly, Portia's public image must remain that of her speech in Act III. Though she will have ultimate control over herself and her husband, she still must call herself "an unlessoned girl," hiding her true authority under a thin mask of submission. Ironically, it is only when Portia dons a disguise that we see her as she truly is - a shrewd, calculating judge, willing to convict and sentence not only the inadequate suitor or the much-abused Jew, but also her own unsuspecting husband.
Barnet Sylvan. "Introduction." The Merchant of Venice Ed. Sylvan Barnet. New Jersey : Prentice-Hall Inc., 1970. 1-10.
Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Ed. Alfred Harbage. 1969. Baltimore: Penguin, 1994.
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