Linking literary heritage poetry with Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’
In this essay, I will focus on how Shakespeare presents women struggling to escape the bounds of the patriarchal society of Venice in the sixteenth century. Then, I will discuss how the poetry that I have studied in class presents women trying to escape. Finally, I will respond to the pieces of literature that I have read by comparing and contrasting them.
How does Shakespeare presents women struggling to escape?
If we focus on Portia (the lead female character in the play), we can see that Portia struggles to escape the patriarchal society by opposing the laws of filial piety. Filial piety is the philosophy that offsprings should always be obedient to their parents. In Act 1 Scene 2, (page 1) we see that Portia struggles to cope with the idea that she cannot choose her husband; she describes herself to be ‘curbed’ (which means restricted) by the will her late father had imposed on her. The evidence for her struggle against her father’s will can be seen in this quotation - ‘The brain may devise laws for the blood/ but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree.’ In a historical point of view, daughters in the sixteenth century were expected to treat their parents with absolute filial piety. However, Portia challenges the will her father had imposed on her, because she expresses the desire to choose her own husband. On the next page, when Nerissa describes the 4 suitors who had come to woo Portia, Portia claims that she would do anything to avoid marrying them, especially the ‘young German’(. Nerissa points that if the german chooses the right casket and Portia refuses to marry him then Portia would be refusing to perform her father’s will. Portia replies by saying that she would place a glass of wine in the wrong casket so that the vile german chooses it and would not be able to marry Portia. So, we can see that Portia is prepared to influence the lottery her father had devised for her wooers, to get her own means. Hence, it is evident that Portia struggles to escape the bounds of her father’s will, and even though she is able to maintain to follow her father’s will, she plans to cheat so that none of her present wooers pick the right casket. Indirectly, she tries to escape the situation her father’s will has placed her in, but she struggles to completely escape of her father’s will because of the respect she has for him.
Portia is not the only female character in the play to challenge the teachings of filial piety. Jessica is most obviously rebellious character in the play. Jessica runs away from her father’s house, to escape the ‘hell’ she was living in. When Jessica compares her father’s house to ‘hell’ (Act 2 Scene 3, line 2), we can see how desperate she is to escape the tedium of Shylock’s house. She directly opposes her father’s will to follow the saying (line 52, Act 2, scene 5, Page 3) ‘Fast bind, fast find’ - this saying means lock up everything securely and everything will be safe when you return - and runs away, taking her father’s money with her. The main reason Jessica wants to escape Shylock’s clutches and marry Lorenzo is that she does not want to be a Jew anymore, but be a Christian instead. At that time, Jews were contemptible for Christians, and the Christians were contemptible for the Jews. So converting to Christianity from Judaism would be seen as transgressing in the Jewish community, and especially in Shylock’s eyes. But Jessica is prepared to commit the sin, in order to escape being a Jew - we can see this in the two lines that end in the rhyming words ‘strife’ and ‘wife - ‘If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, / Become a Christian and thy loving wife’. The fact that ‘strife and wife rhymes represents Jessica’s feeling; she thought that by marrying Lorenzo, she would be able to end her struggles to escape her situation, the ending of her ‘strife’ would be brought by being Lorenzo’s ‘wife’.