The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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How did Shakespeare represent women in his plays, especially in The Merchant of Venice? Is this treatment, whether it was good or bad, influenced by men’s authority or the patriarchal society at that time?

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In Shakespeare's Renaissance society, men were considered superior to women in intelligence, commonsense, and strength. They were given the leadership positions in society. Society was completely patriarchal or male run. Shakespeare, who was a keen observer of human nature, loved to create women characters who were smarter and more resourceful than the men around them, showing that society was wrong to put all the power in the hands of men.

Rosalind in As You Like it and Viola in Twelfth Night are two examples of strong, intelligent women who disguise themselves successfully as men and live by their wits when thrust into new and uncertain circumstances, revealing wisdom, good sense, and resourcefulness.

Portia in The Merchant of Venice does the same. We first see Portia forced to suffer in the grip of patriarchy. Her father has died, leaving her a fortune. However, he was fearful that as a weak-minded woman she would make a poor marriage choice. Therefore, he maintained control of her marriage partner through his will, insisting that she marry, whether she liked it or not, the man who picked correctly among three caskets.

Shakespeare shows how wrong it was for Portia's father to stereotype her as a weak woman when she rises to the occasion to save Antonio's life. When Antonio is about to be condemned to have his heart cut out by Shylock for failing to pay a debt, she shows up in the courtroom, disguised as a male lawyer (a woman would not have been allowed to act in the role), and uses her wits and power of persuasion to turn the tables on Shylock and save Antonio. We see through Portia's actions that women can be as resourceful and intelligent as men: in fact, it is hard to imagine a man doing a better job than Portia.

Shakespeare knew his society held women down, but he challenged that patriarchal system through his portrayal of bright and capable women like Portia.

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