What is the function of women in The Merchant of Venice?
The women in The Merchant of Venice all appear to be foils to their somewhat troubled partners. They are intelligent, strong, outspoken, and willing to take risks. Their partners, on the other hand, seem to be ruled more by the fickle vagaries of fate and desire than by common sense.
Portia, who takes the lead in this regard, is presented as someone who knows her mind and openly expresses her thoughts. She displays her displeasure and resentment in Act I, Scene 2, for her father to have so unfairly burdened her with a lottery to obtain a husband. She confides in her maid-in-waiting, Nerissa, about the difficulty she experiences in reconciling her father's will with her own desire to freely choose a life partner:
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?
She does, however, respect her father's wishes and abides to the requirements of his will. She truly loved her father and, since this was his last request before he died, does not wish to be disrespectful and taint his memory. More practically, Portia also does not want to be disowned. As a result, she adopts a common sense approach to the matter.
Portia's strength of character is also displayed in the courtesy she displays to her suitors, even when she deems them or their habits distasteful. She comes across as a true lady in this regard. In all of this, she conveys an image of fortitude and gentility. Bassanio, on the other hand, comes across as a somewhat irresponsible prodigal. He is a man who loves the good things in life and relies on the help of others, especially Antonio, to come to his aid. He seems to have made a habit of exploiting Antonio's generosity.
Portia is also wise enough to devise a clever ploy to rescue Antonio from Shylock's murderous clutches. Bassanio's solution to his friend's dilemma is to offer the moneylender more money which is, ironically, not even his own since it is a gift from his new wife.
Portia becomes the heroine in the play; Bassanio, for all his idealistic romanticism, plays second fiddle to her. This is further illustrated in the sub-plot where Portia holds him to ransom about her ring that he supposedly gave away.
Jessica and Nerissa come across as equally strong. Jessica risks everything when she elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian. She knows her father despises Christians, but decides to run away with Lorenzo anyway. In the process, she also steals some of her father's most precious possessions and renounces her own religion. She earns her father's hatred for her betrayal: Shylock disowns her and wishes her dead. Lorenzo has nothing to lose in this venture. He gains a loving wife and loads of stolen cash. He obviously earns Shylock's derision but what does he care? Shylock hates Christians anyway.
As far as Nerissa is concerned, we know she had set the conditions for her marrying Gratiano. She told him she would only marry him if Bassanio was successful in the lottery. Since Bassanio had fallen for her, he readily assented. Nerissa also played a similar game with him as Portia did with Bassanio, claiming she had cuckolded him with the lawyer's assistant, who was, indeed, herself. Both men were shocked by the two women's claims and were quite distraught about the matter.
Throughout the play, the women come across as strong characters who act in contrast to the conventions of the time. Women were expected to be submissive and acquiescent to the wills and desires of men, but these three women exercised their will and defied social conventions. They were the ones who generally took the lead.