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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The gender roles depicted in The Merchant of Venice include gender-associated qualities, such as dependence and independence, but William Shakespeare also shows a fair amount of overlap and fluidity.

Examining Portia ’s situation provides insight into these complexities. Portia is a young woman who lives with a female servant, Nerissa....

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The gender roles depicted in The Merchant of Venice include gender-associated qualities, such as dependence and independence, but William Shakespeare also shows a fair amount of overlap and fluidity.

Examining Portia’s situation provides insight into these complexities. Portia is a young woman who lives with a female servant, Nerissa. Although she is an orphan and an only child, she does not have a male relative living with her or controlling her. While her father was alive, even though she had reached her majority, he did not arrange a marriage for her. Neither did he arrange for an older adult to become her guardian. Instead, he created a will that was likely to produce a suitor who would be a good match for his daughter: one who was not motivated by desire for money. In these ways, Portia’s father subverted the dominant social norms to enable his daughter the most flexibility within a restrictive system. Although Portia is dependent on her father, he creates several loopholes whereby she can exercise the maximum amount of independence that would be socially acceptable.

Another aspect of Portia’s situation is her decision to pose as a lawyer by donning the male robes of office. Although she is dependent on the court officers to look the other way, she takes initiative to conduct the trial and help Antonio. The decision to do so and the way she found to carry out her intentions indicate a high degree of independence on her part. In addition, Antonio became dependent on a woman to save his “flesh.”

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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.

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