Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice Essay
1305 WordsNov 28th, 20126 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…
The very fact that Jessica is forced to pose as a male in order to gain freedom –thus shirking the cultural norm –highlights the subjugation of women in Shakespeare’s time. Further enforcing Jessica’s lower social standing is her acceptance to be Lorenzo’s torch-bearer. Shakespeare provides a negative connotation because “torch-bearer” insinuates the image of a servant or otherwise owned individual, which the audience equates with what Jessica will become after her marriage ceremony. Other less pronounced limitations arise in regards to Jessica’s transvesting. The practice of cross-dressing becomes exceedingly important to practical applications later in the play because the women, specifically Portia, must interact with mainstream society. The resulting consequence of taking on a male façade ultimately provides empowerment for the otherwise subjugated women. Jessica’s cross-dressing, though it was insightful and served its purpose well, remains ineffective and powerless to change Lorenzo or impact society in any way. In Portia’s case, however, the potential for change exists because her character actively undercuts male conceptions of female frailty and inability, unlike Jessica’s enforcement of that very claim. Shakespeare initially introduces Portia in a way that her wealth and socioeconomic status are immediately evident. Not only is Portia rich and stunningly beautiful, but she rounds out the image of a
Act III, Scene One
Solanio and Salerio discuss the rumor that Antonio has lost yet a second ship. Shylock enters and complains that both Solanio and Salerio had something to do with his daughter's flight. They do not deny it, but instead ask Shylock if he has heard about Antonio's losses.
Shylock tells them that Antonio should "look to his bond" and make sure he repays the money, or else Shylock is planning on taking his pound of flesh. Shylock is furious with Antonio, whom he blames for the loss of Jessica, and also bears an older grudge against the man. He then delivers his famous soliloquy, "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions..." (3.1.49-50). The speech concludes with Shylock saying that he will be revenged for all the times he has been treated badly by Christians.
One of Antonio's servants arrives and bids Solanio and Salerio to go to Antonio's house. They leave, and Tubal, another Jew, arrives to speak with Shylock. Tubal has been in Genoa, where he tried to locate Jessica. He tells Shylock that Jessica had been in the city, and had spent over eighty ducats while there. She had also traded a turquoise ring for a monkey, a ring which Shylock regrets losing because he had received it from his wife Leah. However, Tubal also brings Shylock news that Antonio has lost yet a third ship, and is almost certain to go bankrupt in the near future. Shylock is excited by this news, since he has decided that he would rather exact revenge on Antonio than receive his three thousand ducats back.
Act III, Scene Two
Portia tells Bassanio that she wants him to wait a month or two before choosing from the caskets so that she may be guaranteed his company for a while longer. Bassanio tells her that he is desperate to choose, and feels like he is being tortured the longer he waits. Portia finally agrees to take him into the room with the caskets.
Portia orders music to be played for Bassanio, and one of her servants starts to sing a song in which the rhymes all rhyme with lead. Bassanio speaks directly to the audience and tells them that too many things are gilded and coated with ornaments. He therefore decides to do away with gold, comparing it to Midas' greed. The silver casket he also ignores, saying it resembles money and is therefore too common. He thus chooses the lead casket and finds Portia's picture inside.
Bassanio is overjoyed by the picture and remarks that it is a beautiful "counterfeit". He then takes the scroll and reads it: "You that choose not by the view / Chance as fair and choose as true" (3.2.131-132). Bassanio goes over to Portia with the note, and she offers him everything she owns, including herself. Portia then hands Bassanio a ring as a token of her love and commitment and tells him never to lose it. He promises, telling her that if he ever stops wearing the ring it will be because he is dead.
Graziano then informs them that he would like to be married as well. He tells Bassanio and Portia that he and Nerissa (the chambermaid to Portia) are in love. Bassanio is thrilled for his friend and agrees to let them get married as well.
Jessica, Lorenzo and Salerio arrive at Belmont. Bassanio is happy to see all of them, but Salerio then hands him a letter from Antonio. Bassanio turns pale at the news that Antonio has lost his fortune and his ships, and he asks Salerio if it is true that all of Antonio's ventures have failed. Salerio tells him it is true, and that Shylock is so excited about getting his pound of flesh that even if Antonio could repay him he would likely refuse it.
Portia asks what amount of money Antonio owes to Shylock, and then orders Bassanio to return to Venice and offer Shylock six thousand ducats to destroy the contract. She informs Bassanio and Graziano that she and Nerissa will live like widows in their absence. They all agree to get married first and then go straight to Venice to rescue Antonio.
Act III, Scene Three
Shylock has come to watch Antonio be taken away by a jailer. Antonio pleads with Shylock to listen to him, but Shylock says, "I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond," (3.3.4) and refuses to listen to any of the pleas for mercy. After Shylock departs, Antonio tells Solanio that Shylock hates him because he used to loan money to men who were in debt to Shylock, thus preventing Shylock from collecting the forfeiture. Antonio is prepared to pay his "bloody creditor" the next day in court, but prays that Bassanio will arrive in time to watch him die.
Act III, Scene Four
Portia and Nerissa, worried about their new husbands, tell Lorenzo that they are going to stay at a local monastery for a few days in order to pray. After Lorenzo and Jessica leave, Portia sends her servant Balthasar to her cousin Doctor Bellario with instructions that Balthasar should bring anything Bellario gives him to Venice. Portia then informs Nerissa that they are going to dress up as men and go to Venice in order to help their husbands.
Act III, Scene Five
Lancelot and Jessica are in an argument over whether she can be saved by God since she was born a Jew. Lancelot tells her that since both her parents are Jews, she is damned. She protests that she can be saved once she becomes a Christian because her husband Lorenzo is a Christian. Lancelot then makes a joke, and says that Lorenzo is a bad man because by converting all the Jews he is raising the price of pork (since Jews do not eat pork, but Christians do). Lorenzo then arrives and orders Lancelot to go inside and prepare the table for dinner. He and Jessica praise Portia for being such a wonderful hostess before entering the house to get their dinner.
By far the most interpreted and critiqued section of this act is Shylock's famous speech:
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooked by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
This passage has been interpreted in many ways, from comedic to villainous to tragic. In the twentieth century, it has almost always taken on a tragic character as a result of WWII. Shylock speaks the lines to defend his resolution to take a pound of Antonio's flesh. However, the passage is difficult to interpret because of Shylock's position in the society. As a Jew, he could not have been on the street screaming for revenge, since this would only lead to more persecution. Thus, one interpretation has taken the lines to be comic, in the sense of using comedy as a mask to hide fear. Like a child who makes jokes out of insecurity, Shylock tries to defend his right to exact the pound of flesh.
Bassanio's choosing from the caskets has also generated controversy. Portia first begs Bassanio to wait at least a month, hoping to spend time with him before he chooses among the caskets. When he refuses to wait, she plays music for him. Some scholars have noted that each of the rhymes of the song rhyme with lead, thus providing a subconscious hint. What is interesting is that Bassanio differs from the other suitors in not reading the inscriptions. Thus he is forced to choose with his eyes alone, saying, "Therefore, thou gaudy gold, / hard food for Midas, I will none of thee. / Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge / Tween man and man" (3.2.100-103). He refers to the fact that gold denotes greed, and thus is worthless as it was for Midas who could not even eat his food because it turned to gold on him. Silver represents money, or coins, passing between men and therefore Bassanio rejects it as well. The lead casket symbolizes his penchant for risk-taking, and indeed the scroll reads as much, "must hazard all he has." Bassanio is an insider, a risk-taker who likes the threat that lead poses, and a man who espouses the Christian ideal of "the last shall be first."
The fact that Bassanio is able to choose the casket without reading the inscription is in some sense born out by the scroll. The scroll says, "You that choose not by the view / Chance as fair and choose as true" (3.2.131-132). However, there is a converse to Bassanio's risk-taking, namely Portia. Portia takes her own risk each time suitor chooses, and is forced to give Bassanio all that she has. "Myself and what is mine is now to you and what is yours converted" (3.2.166). She does not have a choice in this matter, since it is ordained by her dead father's will.
Portia further gives Bassanio a ring, making him promise to wear it forever. This is an inversion of the marriage ceremony, and is her way of testing Bassanio's fidelity and love. In Shakespeare's time it was more often the women who were accused of infidelity, tricking their husbands. Portia cleverly reverses this by making Bassanio swear to keep the faith with her.
The imagery of sheep emerges again in this act, this time in a Christian setting rather than a Jewish one. Graziano says, "We are the Jasons; we have won the fleece" (3.2.240). This Christian take on the sheep imagery is interesting because it is so different from Shylock's interpretation. Rather than make money breed, the Christians prefer to risk everything in search of gaining everything.
Bassanio requires this interpretation, he is after all a gentleman, and therefore considers monetary issues to be beneath him. This is in opposition even to Antonio, who still regards money as a necessity. Bassanio prefers instead to rely on his breeding for success. He tells Portia, "I freely told you all the wealth I had / Ran in my veins: I was a gentleman;" (3.2.253-254).
There has been a great deal of scholarly interest in the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. Antonio's comments and undeniable willingness to support Bassanio have led many to conclude that there is a homoerotic undercurrent to their relationship. Indeed, Antonio's desire at the end is not to keep his life but rather that, "Pray God Bassanio come / To see me pay his debt, and then I care not" (3.3.35-36). Although it may stretch the plot to argue for a homosexual relationship between the two men, what cannot be disregarded is the way in which Portia carefully removes Antonio from the plot at the end. This will be seen later in the play, where she is the one to free him from the contract, and is later the person to inform him about his ships. Thus any relationship between Antonio and Bassanio is trumped by the marriage with Portia, who will further draw Bassanio to her by playing a ring trick on him (see acts four and five).
The fact that women never explicitly appear in Venice is reinforced in this act as well. Portia and Nerissa must first pretend to go to a monastery in order to escape from Belmont, where Lorenzo and Jessica are staying. Portia also contrives to dress them as men in order to go to Venice. She further uses her kinship with Doctor Bellario to give her credibility and allow her to control the actions in the upcoming scenes. However, what can never be denied is the fact that Portia still relies on a man for her credibility, and requires a man's dress in order to alter events in the play.