Merchant of Venice: The Effects of Cross-Dressing Essay

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Shakespeare challenges the assumption that men hold more power than women do. He subtly hints that the power men posses is superficial when Jessica dresses like a boy, and later when Nerissa and Portia disguise themselves as men in The Merchant of Venice. Masculinity is merely a costume that can be donned or doffed at will; therefore its associated power can be removed and redistributed as well. Shakespeare emphasizes gender barriers, yet also challenges them to show their inconsistencies. In court, the Duke articulates the common assumption that men represent the educated and professional members of society. As he anticipates the arrival of the "young learned doctor" (IV i143), he asks, "Where is he?" (IVi 144). The Duke has not yet…show more content…
However, after Portia reveals the truth about the trial, he blends the two virtues and does not distinguish between gender when he begins his final words with "Sweet Doctor" (V i284). Shakespeare has effectively addressed the variations in gender roles and proved them inaccurate. Not only can women pretend to be men, therefore exhibit the commonly associated prestige; they can also exceed men’s capabilities. In the contraband letter, Bellario describes Balthasar (Portia in disguise) as a young man, but urges everyone in the court to "let his lack of years be no impediment" (IV i161) even though wisdom and keen sense are often associated with established adults. At first, Portia seems to support Shylock when she contemplates the case, so he remarks, "How much more elder art though than thy looks!" (IV i250). Portia’s looks are deceptive, but she is actually hiding her sex, not her age. Shylock is unknowingly amazed by a female’s intellect and continues to praise Portia repeatedly when he refers to her as a "noble", "wise and upright", "most rightful", and "most learned" judge (IV i245-303). After Portia shifts her argument to favor Antonio, Gratiano praises her in similar ways. Her intelligence astounds the court. In the final scene, Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano "are all amazed" (V i266) when Portia reveals the secret identities she and Nerissa took on. She proves that women can demonstrate more keen intellect than

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