Explain how gender roles, as in the independence of men and dependence of women, are represented in The Merchant of Venice.

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Merchant of Venice explores gender roles in interesting ways. It expresses the dependent role women have in society in comparison to men, but it also depicts independent women and dependent men.

Portia laments that she may not choose her husband. Her deceased father directed that she can only marry the man who chooses the correct casket and poem that are set before him:

O me, the word 'choose!' I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?

Even a deceased man can hold more power than a living woman. Fortunately, Bassanio, the man Portia fancies, chooses correctly and the two marry. Portia then demonstrates more independence than dependence by freeing Bassanio’s friend Antonio from Shylock’s wrath. She offers up her money, disguises herself as a male lawyer, and uses her cunning to free Antonio from his legal bond. Portia’s waiting woman Nerissa also dresses as a man and accompanies her.

Women often hold the upper hand here. While still disguised, the two women test their husbands’ loyalty by tricking the men into giving them their wedding rings. Shylock’s daughter Jessica is another example of a woman with an independent streak. She runs off with a Christian and steals from her father, spending money and selling treasures as she goes.

In terms of how men are portrayed as dependent, the entire plot revolves around men being indebted to one another. Bassanio relies on Antonio’s and then Portia’s wealth, and Antonio almost dies at the hand of his lender Shylock. In terms of relationships, Antonio appears to be even more emotionally reliant on Bassanio than Portia is. Salanio remarks, “I think he [Antonio] only loves the world for him [Bassanio].”

Consequently, though the men and women in The Merchant of Venice sometimes uphold traditional gender roles, many of characters subvert them.