How do Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica defy the conventional stereotype in Shakespeare's society of being submissive and powerless? What are three quotes from The Merchant of Venice for each woman...

How do Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica defy the conventional stereotype in Shakespeare's society of being submissive and powerless? What are three quotes from The Merchant of Venice for each woman that show how she defies these stereotypes?

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andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act 1, Scene 2, Portia questions the extreme conditions of her father's will. This would be a rare occurrence at the time, for a daughter was not supposed to question whatever a father decided for her; she should be subservient. Questioning or doubting his decisions was regarded as disrespectful and was frowned upon. Portia tells Nerissa, her maid in waiting,

But this reasoning is not in the fashion to
choose me a husband. 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?

Another aspect of her speech also indicates her desire for the freedom to choose a life-partner, instead of having to submit to her father's instruction. In the paternalistic society of the time, a father's word was law and should be obeyed — a daughter (especially in esteemed society) did not marry for love. Marriages were arranged affairs in which the father was the chief negotiator. Portia's disapproval is, in this instance, a break from her assigned role of servile and unquestioning acquiescence.   

Clearly, Portia feels she is an unwilling victim of her father's wishes. She does not have a choice, though, for she will be disowned if she does not obey the instructions in her father's will. Her obedience is, therefore, born out of practical necessity — she would rather follow his instruction than be left destitute.  

Another quote in which Portia breaks from convention is found in Act 4, Scene 2, when she decides to visit Venice in disguise to help Antonio:

When we are both accoutred like young men,
I'll prove the prettier fellow of the two,

Portia decides she and Nerissa will go to Venice disguised as men. This act would have been condemned at the time since it was expected that ladies of stature were supposed to be just that — ladies, who were demure and feminine. Any sign of manliness would be seriously criticized. It was practically taboo for a woman to misrepresent herself in such a way.

In Act 5, Scene 1, Portia tells Bassanio,

I will become as liberal as you;
I'll not deny him any thing I have,
No, not my body nor my husband's bed:
Know him I shall, I am well sure of it:
Lie not a night from home; watch me like Argus:
If you do not, if I be left alone,
Now, by mine honour, which is yet mine own,
I'll have that doctor for my bedfellow.

This statement by Portia would evoke exclamations of shock and horror at any time and even more so during such a conservative period, where the stereotypical woman, especially if she was of the upper class, was expected to be humble, quiet, and respectful. Portia's unexpectedly provocative declaration that she would give her all, even her body, and sleep with another man whilst married, would surely have produced a surprised response. 

In Nerissa's case, her open and confidential relationship with Portia is certainly a break from the norm. Serving women were supposed to be respectful to their mistresses at all times. They were supposed to show a servile obedience. Nerissa, however, speaks to Portia as an equal.

You need not fear, lady, the having any of these
lords: they have acquainted me with their
determinations; which is, indeed, to return to their
home and to trouble you with no more suit.

Although Nerissa's tone is quite respectable, she comes across more as an advisor and confidante. Her direct address would have been deemed inappropriate in Shakespearean society. She would be observed as 'putting on airs' — acting out of her station and taking privileges she was not supposed to have.

When she later decides to marry without having undergone the normal traditional practice of having a husband chosen for her, Nerissa again breaks from the norm. Gratiano tells Bassanio in Act 3, Scene 2,

I got a promise of this fair one here
To have her love, provided that your fortune
Achieved her mistress.

She has promised marriage to Gratiano and set the conditions as well. She would marry him if Bassanio successfully chose the right casket. Normally the bride was not entitled to set any conditions. 

Her decision to later follow Portia and dress as a man and make a similar threat as Portia's to Bassanio sets her apart as a woman who knows and speaks her own mind. She is clearly also the one who takes the lead in their relationship, which was quite unconventional. She tells Gratiano in Act 5, Scene 2,

And I his clerk; therefore be well advised
How you do leave me to mine own protection.

This ties in with Portia's statement that she would sleep with the 'lawyer' who defended Antonio. She promises to do the same with the lawyer's clerk.

Jessica's decision to disobey her father, Shylock, is a clear break from tradition. As mentioned earlier, a daughter was supposed to obey her father's every instruction, whether she liked it or not. She takes the drastic step of eloping with a Christian, someone she knows her father will despise. She takes the risk of being disowned. Her decision is made clear in the following lines from Act 1, scene 2:

O Lorenzo,
If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife,
Become a Christian and thy loving wife.

It is also surprising that Jessica refers to living with her father as a 'strife.' Daughters were expected to be loving and loyal to their fathers and appreciate them, no matter what. She would have been deemed ungrateful, ungracious, and disgraceful. 

Jeesica's decision to be disguised as a boy, Lorenzo's torchbearer, is, similar to Portia and Nerissa's actions, an oddity. It was unacceptable for a woman to want to look like a man. In such a society, women were meant to be pleasing to the eye, graceful, and true to their gender. Although Jessica expresses some embarrassment about her attire, she is driven by her desire for Lorenzo and does what is needed.

I am glad 'tis night, you do not look on me,
For I am much ashamed of my exchange:
But love is blind and lovers cannot see
The pretty follies that themselves commit.

Probably the most drastic of all Jessica's actions in her bid for freedom from her father's control is her rejection of his religion. The fact that she adopts Lorenzo's faith and denies her own is surely a sign that she wishes to make a clean break from Shylock. For a woman of the time to take such a step was extremely rare indeed. She informs Launcelot of this in Act 3, Scene 5:

I shall be saved by my husband; he hath made me a
Christian.

Her contention is that she will not only be saved from her father's control but she would also be rescued in a spiritual sense.

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The Merchant of Venice

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