“It’s a Man’s World”
One of Shakespeare’s favorite plot devices seems to be putting female characters into male attire to give them a sense of power. We see this in “Twelfth Night” as well as in “Merchant of Venice”. Not only does Jessica dress as a boy in the 2nd act to escape her father, but Portia and Nerissa enter the 4th act dressed as men. This is an interesting development for Portia who had so little power in the previous acts of the play; she was bound by her father’s will and unable to choose her own husband.
However, when Antonio demands, “Most heartily I do beseech the court/To give the judgment” (4.1. 238) Portia delivers the verdict. She determines the climax of the plot. Her character has gone from having no power and being subjected to a game of a chance to being the one that determines if Antonio will live or die. Portia’s transformation is due to the fact that she is disguised as a man. Although she showcases her wit in the 1st act when she is listing the faults in her suitors and her education is obvious when she tells Nerissa, “You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me, nor I him. He hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian” (1.2. 57-58) it is not until she is dressed as a man that these qualities are fully displayed. As she reads over the bond that Shylock and Antonio have she is able to think of a way to save Antonio. She is clever enough to read between the lines and see that the bond does not account for Shylock taking Antonio’s blood, “There is something else. /This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood” (4.1.300-301). The men who knew the circumstances of the bond failed to come up with a way to save to Antonio. They were merely counting on Shylock’s mercy (even though he refused to show any) and the Duke giving pardon to Antonio.
Portia is clearly a strong female character in the first acts, but her gender allows her to be controlled. When she puts on the male clothes she takes control of the courtroom as soon as she enters it. She determines the right justice to pass for the good of Venice; she knows that if the Duke pardons Antonio it will hurt Venice’s commerce. Economics is a sphere that women traditionally were not a part of, but Portia is smart enough to know the ins-and-outs of the Venetian market. She is also wise enough to spot the loop hole to stop Shylock from extracting his payment from Antonio. Portia was the one clever and cunning enough to save Antonio. It is ironic that she was able to save him from his bond but could not save herself from marriage. Thankfully Bassanio chose the correct casket. Portia is not able to display these strong attributes until she is dressed as a man. She is powerless and controlled as a woman, but as a man she is in charge and able to show her intelligence.