In act 4 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, does the audience know that Nerissa and Portia are the messenger and lawyer in disguise? As readers we know that Nerissa and Portia enter in disguise.

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The audience is well aware that Nerissa and Portia are the clerk and lawyer. In act 3, scene 4 , Portia shares her plan with Nerissa and dispatches the real Balthasar to Padua to see her cousin Bellario. She gives him a letter for Bellario to copy in his own...

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The audience is well aware that Nerissa and Portia are the clerk and lawyer. In act 3, scene 4, Portia shares her plan with Nerissa and dispatches the real Balthasar to Padua to see her cousin Bellario. She gives him a letter for Bellario to copy in his own handwriting, and a list of the clothes she requests: “look, what notes and garments he doth give thee,/ Bring them, I pray thee, with imagined speed . . . ” She then tells Nerissa most of her plot, saying that their husbands will see them in different clothes or “habit,” dressed or “accoutred like young men . . . ”

Because boys played the female roles in Elizabeth theater, Shakespeare has fun with mocking this practice. Portia says that she will be the “prettier” man and makes a lot of jokes about the manly things she will do while disguised. These include walking with a “manly stride,” “bragging,” “telling quaint lies,” and how ladies died for lack of his love; she says she will tell “twenty of these puny lies.” Nerissa then wants to know, “Why, shall we turn to me?” The audience would certainly laugh when Portia scoffs, “Fie, what a question’s that / If thou were near a lewd interpreter!”

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The short version of the answer is that it is very probable that the audience of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice would have recognize Nerissa and Portia despite their disguises.

More important to your question is the difference between the experiences of reading and seeing a play. Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed not read. Thus we would recognize the disguised women by their voices and general appearance, just as you would recognize one of your friends even if she were wearing a Halloween costume.

Another issue is that both women would have been played by male actors in Shakespeare's time, and thus we get the common Shakesperian device here of male actors playing women playing men.

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