The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Why is it that in The Merchant of Venice, it is the women who are the only characters that are capable of and do change. Why not the men, who have the most power?

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Many critics have remarked that the women in this play, particularly Portia, outshine the male characters, even though in this patriarchal world it is the men who have the power. Bassanio in particular seems to be an incredibly poor choice of suitor for a woman of Portia's intelligence, wit and ingenuity. He is depicted as manipulating his former lover Bassanio to gain money to fund his prodigal ways, deliberately placing Antonio's life in danger and in massive risk, so that he can pursue a woman who will make him wealthy. Clearly his intentions are suspect, even though later evidence suggests that he does genuinely love Portia. Either way, what seems to distinguish the female characters from the male characters is the way that they view and value money. To Bassanio, for example, money is his objective, and it is why he seeks Portia's hand. For Portia, on the other hand, it is clear that money is not an objective in itself, and when, in Act III scene 2 she learns of Antonio's plight, she is very happy to spend any amount of money to save his life:

Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond:

Double six thousand, and then treble that,

Before a friend of this description

Shall lose a hair through Bassanio's fault.

This is not just the casual comments of a woman who is so wealthy that such extravagance would not make a dent in her considerable fortune; rather it is the heartfelt words of a woman who views the worth of money as being based on the good that she can achieve with it rather than an end goal in itself. Note how this is emphasised through doubling the initial three thousand ducats that Bassanio says must be paid and then taking that to seemingly absurd lengths: Portia announces that money has no claim over her and she will gladly dispense with it to save another's life. In this quote she shows that money does not control her, which is a strong indication as to why the female characters are able to change and develop so greatly, even though they have such little power, because of the way in which men in this play are dominated by money and controlled by it. Portia is an example of a character who has money but who is not controlled by it, which seems to be the secret of her ability to change.

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