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Shakespeare’s Outliers

Last updated on February 27th, 2016 at 04:12 am

by Casey Yamamoto

The influence of Shakespeare’s writing has lasted through the centuries, providing readers insight into socio-political criticism that Shakespeare develops through his characters and their relationships. In the play, The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare explores the concepts of gender roles in society as well as the role of women in a predominantly male, Christian dominated era. Shakespeare incorporates the events and societal conflicts of his 16th and 17th century world into the political undertones of his plays. During his lifetime, merchant society began to emerge in Italy and much of Europe. Venice, Italy was a place of bustling trade and capitalism, in which only men could participate. In this merchant lifestyle, women are not included as business or landowners, thus establishing their common role as submissive and docile creatures. Shakespeare explores the established gender relationships by creating male characters, Antonio and Bassanio, that undermine heterosexuality. These men were depicted as having a homosexual or homosocial relationship that for the most part, was kept hidden from the public. At the same time, Shakespeare creates intelligent, astute women that are used to question the male-female binary of privilege and power. He challenges traditional psychology by creating characters that deconstruct the sexual, religious, and gender dichotomies of western philosophy. Through employing feminist and queer theory, we are able to understand Shakespeare’s character relationships and the play’s symbolic messages.

The Merchant of Venice uncovers social privileges through its political dialogue and symbolic motifs. It examines the homo-social relationships and the subversion of the Jewish people in the commerce culture of Venice, Italy. The story takes place in 16th century Venice and Belmont, Italy during a time of anti-Semitism and segregation of Jews. It was originally written as a romantic comedy, but is largely viewed today as a tragedy. In order to examine the play, it is important to understand Shakespeare’s attitude toward Jews and the historical context. Jews were discriminated and abused both physically and emotionally throughout Europe, but most predominantly in England and Italy. Starting in 1516, Jews were confined to ghettos, which were areas of the city allocated to people of non-Christian heritage. Under the Venetian Republic, Jews were required to wear a red badge or hat in public. This was used as a tool for anti- Semitism and bigotry. Also, the Venetian ghettos were locked and patrolled at night further adding to the prison-like lifestyle of Jews.

Many people have claimed that Shakespeare is fostering anti-Semitic thought in The Merchant of Venice. However, not everything is as it seems in Shakespearian plays. Jews are portrayed as victims of their society as seen in Shylock’s monologue, “Still have I borne it with a patient shrug, / For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe. / You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine, / And all for use of that which is mine own” (I.iii.436-440). Shylock in particular, who some see as the villain of the play, is in many ways a tragic character who lived in a world that was turned against him and was struck down by the Christian dominated society. Jews at this time could not own property, so they made a living off of money lending with interest or “usury”. This principle goes against Christian ideology, further setting Jews apart. The main Christians in this play, Antonio and Bassanio, treat Jews without dignity, creating a miserable life for them. By depicting Shylock in this manner, Shakespeare criticizes justice, equality, and Christian ethics in society. Therefore, these characters are Shakespeare’s tools to cross-examine the political and societal framework of the time period.

Shakespeare creates proto-feminist characters that understand gender inequality and attempt to subvert the male-female roles through their manipulations. Portia is an heiress that lives in her father’s palace in Belmont with her waiting-maid, Nerissa. Before he died, her father created a casket test for suitors that sought Portia’s hand in marriage. Her father’s will included not only the three caskets, but also sexual and economic control over her from the grave. The caskets perpetuate heterosexual relationship and abstinence until marriage. This contributes to the filial piety and patriarchal supremacy. Because her father selected the lead casket as the right answer, he is essentially selecting a suitor that will be like himself. In doing this, Portia will have a husband and eventually heir that is like her father. From the beginning, Portia has not been a woman who has sat idly while under she constraints of her father’s will. She questions her freedom of choice, “so is the will of a living daughter curbed / by the will of a dead father” (I.ii.217-219). She is freethinking, independent woman who is restricted by her father’s patriarchal supremacy. Portia’s father was a remnant of the old world social structure that was based on feudalism rather than mercantilism. In the compiled work, Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare, Arthur L. Little Jr. states: “Portia’s father’s casket games encapsulate not only in Belmont, but throughout Shakespeare’s play, how economics is inextricably bound to sex and more specifically, how sexual reproduction is bound to economic reproduction” (Menon 216-225). Portia seeks to find a way out of inheritance laws and her pre-ordained lifestyle by manipulating the male privilege. She realizes that she is being limited by her father, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as / chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner / of my father's will” (I.ii.296-298). Portia only finds hope in the chance of marrying Bassanio who she believes will give her more freedom and opportunity. Thus, in the introduction of the play, the gender binary is established.

Secondly, a homosocial, if not homosexual relationship is explored between Antonio and Bassanio through their intimate dialogue with each other. Although somewhat concealed and overshadowed by other key religious inequality, their relationship is of great importance to the sexual fluidity in the play. The play begins with Antonio revealing, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad" (I.i.1). This melancholic state is essential to analysis through queer theory. Antonio struggles internally with his amorous feelings toward his friend Bassanio. Queer theory emerged in the 1990’s to examine how sexuality relates to identity and ideology. It aims to study the gay, lesbian, and feminist challenges in society. The queer theorist, Arthur L. Little Jr., argues, “Antonio mourns the impending loss of Bassanio, but he mourns too, a loss of an affirmative language and knowledge of his social and institutional place…he sees the institution of heterosexual marriage working not only to displace but to replace same-sex communing” (Menon 216-218). Antonio loves Bassanio more than just a friend, but he is unable to express this due to the repercussions that it would have on his life. Although homosexuality was not completely uncommon in Shakespeare’s time, this relationship studies the implications of having a traditional marriage. At the beginning of the play, Bassanio sought financial security and a beautiful wife. This type of power and influence would not be found if he established a relationship with another man, Antonio. Sadly, in Bassanio’s first conversation with Antonio, Bassanio asks for financial help so he can marry a woman, Portia of Belmont, “In Belmont is a lady richly left; / And she is fair, and, fairer than that word…” (I.i.167-169). Because Antonio wants the best for Bassanio, he promises to help him marry Portia. This contributes to Antonio’s depression, “A stage where every man must play a part, / And mine a sad one” (I.i.83-84). By understanding the queer analysis of this text, we see that Antonio’s melancholy is not due to his assets at sea, but rather his internal conflict over loving Bassanio. Shakespeare quietly creates this homosexual relationship hidden between the lines of the dialogue, yet is holds a greater meaning as a social criticism to the orthodox heterosexual standard.

Through Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship, Shakespeare is also expressing the male over female hierarchy. They express loyalty to each other that is greater than Bassanio’s loyalty to his wife Portia. This is first seen when Antonio agrees to the “pound of flesh” bond and Bassanio objects, “You shall not seal to such a bond for me: / I'll rather dwell in my necessity” (I.iii.483-484). Bassanio wants to protect Antonio, yet Antonio wishes to give up everything for Bassanio. Antonio is extremely connected to Bassanio, as demonstrated in his letter to Belmont, “If your love does not persuade you to come, let not my letter” (III.ii.1699-1700). Antonio does not want Bassanio to come to Venice to see his death. Even more so, Antonio may have been hurt by Bassanio’s marriage to Portia. Later, when Antonio is on trial for not paying his bond, Bassanio pleads to give anything to stop Shylock from harming Antonio, “On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart…” (IV.i.2151-2154). Bassanio further demonstrates his devotion to Antonio when he states, Antonio, I am married to a wife / Which is as dear to me as life itself; / But life itself, my wife, and all the world, / Are not with me esteem'd above thy life: / I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all / Here to this devil, to deliver you” (IV.i.2227-2232). This is one of the most powerful quotes that represents the true extent of Bassanio’s love for Antonio and the order of men over women even in marriage. In the stress and fear of losing Antonio, Bassanio breaks the homosexual-heterosexual social binary, but at the same time reinforces the male- female binary.

Portia, more than Nerissa, understands how she is judged in society based on her gender, class, and religion. Many suitors place her on a pedestal and describe her world as almost dream- like. She is admired for her beauty, not for her intellect, “her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece…” (I.i.176-177). As a wealthy Caucasian heiress, she is privileged, but she knows that men still try to have power over her. Portia must keep up an appearance of femininity for her suitors, yet she is waiting for a suitor that will give her more power. She looks to Bassanio, as he represents the new merchant class, which is less concerned with subjugating women. Thus, Portia’s decision to secretly preside over Antonio’s trial was used to solidify Bassanio’s loyalty to her. By examining her actions in this light, we see that her purpose was much more calculated than expected. The determination that Portia expresses is her will to take on the power of the other sex and manipulate the societal binary from within.

Cross-dressing was not uncommon in Renaissance Europe, as men often cross-dressed to play the roles of women in theater. However, for women, it represented an opportunity to receive the male benefits in society and served as an implement for social manipulation. It allowed them to realize the disparity between the male and female social spheres. After Portia is married to Bassanio and receives the news of Antonio’s trial, she takes it upon herself to intervene. Instead, of going to the monastery, they plan to disguise as doctors of law, “Into my cousin's hand, Doctor Bellario; / And, look, what notes and garments he doth give thee, … Unto the tranect, to the common ferry / Which trades to Venice. ….But get thee gone: I shall be there before thee” (III.iv.1801-1806). Portia demonstrates her intelligence and ambition to push her beliefs forward and take action even though she is a woman. Jean E. Howard argues in her book, Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England:

“In myriad ways clothes distinguished one social group from those both above and below; they were precise indicators of status and degree. To transgress the codes governing dress was to disrupt an official view of the social order in which one’ identity was largely determined by one’s station or degree – and where that station was, in theory, providentially determined and immutable” (Howard 418- 440).
The Christian and merchant society outs women lower than men in the hierarchy of power, yet Portia and Nerissa take advantage of this system by disguising as men. Howard’s insightful analysis uncovers the power of appearance and how people are perceived in society. Portia and Nerissa go to Venice disguised as her lawyer cousin Bellario and his clerk. They don borrowed black robes and wear hats to hide their hair. When Portia and Nerissa arrive in the court, they are greeted as admired gentlemen. They are perceived to be credible and respectable as men. If they came undisguised, they would not have been allowed to speak due to their gender limitations. In order to help Antonio, Portia turned to cross-dressing, which was the only means of attaining male power. Portia expresses her knowledge of the laws in Venice and is able to manipulate the men of the court. This is significant because it demonstrates that she is, in fact, more intelligent than her husband. At that time, a small number of wealthy women could be educated at the discretion of their family, yet it was not socially acceptable to use their knowledge in public. Shakespeare is able to subtly point out her expertise by concealing it in the drama of the scene. If he had done so in a pointed manner, the play may have lost popularity due to the controversial subject. Interestingly, even disguised as men, Portia and Nerissa enforce the same Christian ideals that subvert women. Portia is harsh with Shylock and commands herself with dignity in the court room, “He hath refused it in the open court: / He shall have merely justice and his bond” (IV.i.2286-2287). Portia uses her voice as a man to her advantage, to diminish Shylock’s power, gain respect of the court, and increase Bassanio’s loyalty to her. Howard make the point that, “In short, when rules of apparel are violated, class distinctions break down…when women dress as men and when men dress effeminately, distinctions between sexual “kinds” are also obliterated” (Howard 418-440). Shakespeare creates this dramatic irony to question the male role and draw a reaction from the audience, whether it be in support of or against Portia and Nerissa’s gender exploitation. Cross-dressing represents a corruption of traditional roles from he traditional male perspective, but from the proto-feminist outlook, women are gaining power that is rightfully theirs. The significance of cross-dressing comes from Portia’s transition from an obedient heiress who played by her father’s rules, to a rebellious independent woman who is in charge of her destiny. Shakespeare depicts Portia and Nerissa as highly ingenious women who are brave enough to explore gender inequality to its fullest extent by assuming the male identity.

The ring plot in The Merchant of Venice serves to emphasize the motif of loyalty throughout the play. When Portia married Bassanio and Nerissa married Gratiano, the couples exchanged rings. Portia and Nerissa asked their husbands to promise never to remove their rings, “I give them with this ring; / Which when you part from, lose, or give away, / Let it presage the ruin of your love / And be my vantage to exclaim on you” (III.ii.1541-1544). The rings embody the power that these women have over their husbands. Earlier in their dialogue, Portia tells Bassanio that in marriage, he will have control over her, “Myself and what is mine to you and yours / Is now converted” (III.ii.1539-1540). As a wife, she is expected to be submissive so she fulfills her role by giving all that is hers to him. Yet, she expects that in return, he must never take off the ring, which would be a betrayal to their commitment. If he breaks the promise, Portia is entitles to pull herself above the role of servility and have power over Bassanio. Portia and Nerissa’s transvestitism is used to verify their husband’s loyalty to them. After Portia successfully saved Antonio, Antonio and Bassanio ask if they could show their gratefulness in some way. Portia and Nerissa take this opportunity to ask for the rings of Bassanio and Gratiano, “…I'll take this ring from you: / Do not draw back your hand; I'll take no more; / And you in love shall not deny me this” (IV.i.2381-2384). Portia demands the ring from her husband and he eventually hands it over to her male identity, exposing the dichotomy of man over women. This must have hurt both Portia and Nerissa, as it confirmed that their husbands were more devoted to a male judge and his clerk than their own wives. Deidre Latoof writes, “Portia’s test, and Bassanio’s subsequent failing of the test, gives Portia an uncomfortable level of control over Bassanio as she is now able to dissolve their marriage if she wishes” (Latoof). When all return to Belmont, Portia and Nerissa retain their masculine dominance even after they have removed their disguises. The now apprehend the extent of male power, and intend to use some of their newfound influence to manipulate their unfaithful husbands. Portia increases the dramatic irony by requesting to see his ring and joking that she slept with Doctor Bellario, “For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (V.i.259). Portia usurps power over her husband due to his infidelity to their promise.

Jessica, the daughter of Shylock is also a female character who disobeys patriarchal society by rejecting her religion and submissive role. She converts to Christianity and runs away with much of her father’s fortune to marry Lorenzo. Jessica lives under the constraints of her father, Shylock, and her Jewish identity. When she is first introduced, she is planning to run away and is saying goodbye to the servant Launcelot. She lives under the control and constant watch of Shylock who attempts to seclude her from the Christian world. “Let not the sound of shallow fopp’ry enter / My sober house” (II.v.28–36). She is kept locked up just as tightly as her father’s fortune. Meanwhile, she secretly met with Lorenzo and planned to marry him in spite of her father. She tells Launcelot, “Our house is hell” (II.iii.2). Jessica wants to have the freedom of living free from the demands of her father and she believes that a Christian life will give her adventure and social mobility. Shakespeare uses Jessica’s character to reveal the religious and gender privileging. Jessica, like Portia and Nerissa uses cross-dressing as a method to gain access to a different lifestyle. In the middle of the night, when Shylock was gone, Lorenzo comes to help Jessica run away. To disguise herself from the Christians who patrolled the canals of the ghetto at night, Jessica disguises as a torchbearer. “What, must I hold a candle to my shames? / They in themselves, good-sooth, are too too light. / Why, 'tis an office of discovery, love; / And I should be obscured” (II.vi.953-955). Jessica crosses gender, class, and religious lines by dressing as the opposite sex, thus making cross-dressing a powerful tool in the hands of women.

The Merchant of Venice serves as a social commentary and examination of the role of men and women in Renaissance society. Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship questions the heterosexual-homosexual binary while Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica’s cross-dressing uncovers male-female privileging. By creating these atypical characters that challenge tradition, Shakespeare is deconstructing the societal conventions of the time period. In Theoretical Questions and Critical Answers in The Merchant of Venice, Audrey Birkett states: “The Merchant of Venice, perhaps more than any other Shakespearian play, has at its core acutely modern issues such as the nature of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, the mount of control held by Portia in her own destiny…” (Sierra 15-29). Queer theorist scholars and feminist theorists alike believe that the topics explored in Shakespeare’s work are still in question today. The issues of homosexuality and female dominance are controversial in the 21th century. This leads many to wonder why five hundred years have passed, yet there is still intolerance for these groups. The Merchant of Venice gives us insight below the surface of Renaissance life into the experiences of Shakespeare’s outliers, who live at the fringes of their society.

Works Cited

Felheim, Marvin. "The Merchant of Venice." Shakespeare for Students: Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare's Plays and Poetry. Detroit: Gale, 1992. Student Resources in Context. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
Howard, Jean E. Crossdressing, The Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England. 4. 49. JSTOR Archive, 1988. 418-440. Web.
Latoof, Deidre. "The Importance of Cross Dressing in Merchant of Venice." Cedarcrest.edu. N.p., 11 Nov 2005. Web. 15 Dec 2013.
Menon, Madhavi. Shakesqueer: A Queer Companion to the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Duke University Press, 2011. 216-225. Web. 14 Dec. 2013.
Sierra , Horacio. New Readings of The Merchant of Venice. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013. 15-29. Print.