Cross-Dressing in Merchant of Venice Essay

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In William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, gender roles are explored, culminating in two distinct scenes of cross-dressing. The men of Elizabethan society enjoy a prominent status based solely on gender, to which women are clearly outsiders. This is particularly evident in Jessica’s newfound freedom when dressed as a pageboy in Act 2 and Portia’s and Nerissa’s immediate elevation in social standing when they take on male personas in Act 4. Through these two instances of cross-dressing, Shakespeare presents class not in terms of socioeconomic status but in the benefits of being male. Although the three women all partake in cross-dressing as a means of undermining patriarchal constraint, the consequences vary as there are several…show more content…
The very fact that Jessica is forced to pose as a male in order to gain freedom –thus shirking the cultural norm –highlights the subjugation of women in Shakespeare’s time. Further enforcing Jessica’s lower social standing is her acceptance to be Lorenzo’s torch-bearer. Shakespeare provides a negative connotation because “torch-bearer” insinuates the image of a servant or otherwise owned individual, which the audience equates with what Jessica will become after her marriage ceremony. Other less pronounced limitations arise in regards to Jessica’s transvesting. The practice of cross-dressing becomes exceedingly important to practical applications later in the play because the women, specifically Portia, must interact with mainstream society. The resulting consequence of taking on a male façade ultimately provides empowerment for the otherwise subjugated women. Jessica’s cross-dressing, though it was insightful and served its purpose well, remains ineffective and powerless to change Lorenzo or impact society in any way. In Portia’s case, however, the potential for change exists because her character actively undercuts male conceptions of female frailty and inability, unlike Jessica’s enforcement of that very claim. Shakespeare initially introduces Portia in a way that her wealth and socioeconomic status are immediately evident. Not only is Portia rich and stunningly beautiful, but she rounds out the image of a
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