The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In The Merchant of Venice, what does Portia's speech about their disguises say about their opinions of men?

It seems that Jessica and Portia are both tired of being treated like possessions, as one might treat a bowl or a vase. They are tired of the servitude of femininity and they feel that they have been forced by society to play roles which they never wanted. In order to escape these roles and take control of their lives, they disguise as men in order to help Antonio. The fact that neither girl is ashamed at cross-dressing proves how sick they are of being controlled by society's expectations of them.

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In a drama that is fraught with allusions to the servitude of woman, Portia's speech in Act III, Scene 4, expresses her inner feelings that she as yet has not revealed, having appeared as the obedient daughter to her father's will and having told Lorenzo that she and Nerissa will meekly go to a nearby monastery where they will pray that the grave situation of Antonio will be happily resolved. Further, she gives her servant Balthasar a message to deliver  adding with irony, with all "th'endeavor of a man" to her cousin Doctor Bellario in Padua.

However, after they are left alone, Portia talks to Nerissa and they plan to disguise themselves as men in order to help Antonio. Incidentally, neither of them are embarrassed about this cross-dressing; in fact, Jessica jokes, saying she will wear her "dagger with the braver grace"--finer masculine grace--adding that she has observed many foolish men and can imitate their mannerisms easily. For instance, she can easily boast of the fights she/he has been in, the women spurned, and other such behaviors:

Into a manly stride, and speak of frays
Like a fine bragging youth; and tell quaint lies,
How honorable ladies sought my love,
Which I denying, they fell sick and died--
I could not do withal. (3.4.68-72)

Furthermore, she tells Nerissa that she has in mind "A thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks" (3.4.77) suggesting that young men are pompous fools. Then, Nerissa, in an off-color pun on men's anatomy, asks, "Why shall we turn to men?" (3.4.79).

After her experiences with potential husbands, it appears that Portia's opinion of young men is rather unfavorable. 

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