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Shakespeare’s Female Characters in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado about Nothing”

Updated November 24, 2021
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Shakespeare’s Female Characters in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado about Nothing” essay

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Shakespeare portrays the ideal woman as strong-willed, intelligent, and attractive among other positive traits. Shakespeare’s female characters often overshadow the male characters, challenging women’s predetermined role in society. The expected norms of compliance with and dependence on men are shattered by the strong female characters Shakespeare depicts plays. Rather than being solely defined by these norms, the female characters are independent and have freedom. These are two of the traits that connect Shakespeare’s characters to the modern world.

The female characters offer insight into a woman’s perceptions of herself in a patriarchal world and illustrate how to become equal. Portia from The Merchant of Venice and Beatrice from Much Ado about Nothing, can both be classified as characters of intellect since they are able to be distinguished by their mental superiority. Even though Portia and Beatrice both use wit and logical reasoning to determine their fates, Portia is ultimately bound to the societal conventions of marriage and patriarchy, leaving Beatrice the freedom to resemble a modern view of the ideal independent woman.

To understand how Shakespeare’s female characters continue to withstand the test of time, the attitude towards women in Elizabethan England must be first examined. Even though both plays take place in Italy, Shakespeare is still writing for a British audience. By using Italy as a “mirrored setting” of London, it allows Shakespeare more freedom for social critique. He is able to avoid additional social or political backlash by mirroring the setting and is still able to convey themes to his British audience.

In Shakespeare’s time, women did not have many of the freedoms that the modern woman enjoys. Despite the ruling monarch being female, women were unable to go to university, rarely held property rights, and held menial occupations. Rackin, in her novel Shakespeare and Women, brings up the point that many critics rewrite history of women in order to form a grander narrative for feminism, arguing that women were “everywhere in Shakespeare’s England, but the variety of their roles in life and in the scripts of plays too often goes without notice” (Rackin 25). Shakespeare realizes that much of his audience is female play-goers and adapts his scripts to better suit a female narrative, especially in his later works. Shakespeare plays to his educated, literate female audience, showing a step toward women empowerment during his time period, further making the female characters and the themes they discuss, relevant and relatable across time periods.

Portia, from The Merchant of Venice, is a classic example of a Shakespearean heroine. She quickly establishes herself as being both honorable and sophisticated but also possessing a keen wit and a sense of humor. Her somewhat naïve humor can be found in her conversations with her friend Nerissa, poking fun at the suitors Portia claims one is “every man in no man” and if she “marr[ies] him, [she] should marry twenty husbands” (Merchant I.ii.252-255).

These jokes mask the fear Portia has in choosing a suitor. Even though Portia realizes she must marry, she recognizes what traits and characteristics she wants in a husband. This is similar to Beatrice in that they both express the characteristics they want in a husband. Despite a somewhat naïve nature, Portia shows her true quality of intellect and the value of her character during the court scene. Portia uses her intelligence to describe mercy in a way that speaks to Shylock, thus saving her husband and Antonio:

It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this:

That in the course of justice none of us

Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,

And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea (Merchant IV.i.192-201)

This quote is significant in the way that it shows careful reasoning and logic done on Portia’s part. Since she is disguised as a man, only her intelligence, not her appearance, is used in finding a solution to the problem at hand. Portia is able to control her emotions and realize the severity of the situation, prompting her to use her intelligence and reason. Despite her restricted boundaries as a woman, she attempts to manipulate the merchants, characterizing a stereotype of manly authority. Portia’s ability to retain her logical mind in the face of emotional intensity overshadows Beatrice’s wit.

While Portia uses logic and reasoning, examples of Beatrice’s wit are far more prevalent than her use of the former. Beatrice’s two main topics of attack revolve Benedick and marriage in general. She uses her wit to insult Benedick when she refers to him first as a man with ‘an excellent stomach’ and then as a ‘stuffed man,’ like a dummy (Much Ado I.i.42, 48). In regard to the mockery of romance, Beatrice teases her cousin Hero relentlessly. Beatrice tells Hero that romance is like a dance, first, it is “hot and hasty” in within courtship but this pace soon changes. Ultimately it leads to regretting the marriage as exemplified as the “cinquepace”, moving faster and faster until Hero’s husband “sink[s] into his grave” (Much Ado II.i.62-68).

In comparison to Portia, it could be said that Beatrice’s character seems somewhat insipid, for her exchanges, though witty, are more romantic than political. Portia’s famous speech, ‘The quality of mercy is not strained,’ merges the feminine traits of appealing to the emotions with the masculine intelligence (Merchant IV.i.192-201). Through this scene, Shakespeare illustrates not only Portia’s intelligence but her independence in disguising herself. Portia loses some authority, however, since she disguises herself as a man.

Conversely, Beatrice represents an elevation of female status, as Shakespeare moves even further from the traditional limitations of societal norms to portray an authentically feminine Beatrice, not only as an equal but as a controlling companion for Benedick. As the play moves toward conclusion and the couple protest their love, Benedick requests of Beatrice, “Come, bid me do anything for thee” (Much Ado IV.i.287), which she does in no uncertain terms: “Kill Claudio” (Much Ado IV.i.288), she demands. This is a role reversal of Portia and Bassanio. As Benedick proves he values Beatrice’s reasoning, he elevates her status as a woman. In Portia’s case, she has to disguise herself as a man in order to gain the respect of her husband. When Beatrice wins over Benedick, so she also commands his ultimate loyalty. Beatrice has the freedom to gain Benedick’s loyalty without the bonds of marriage.

A woman’s independence is a vital part of keeping her true identity and not merging hers with her husbands. Simone de Beauvoir calls it the sense of one’s self as ‘subject, active, free.’ Marriage dramatizes power of one human being over another, often times limiting the freedom of one of the partners. By creating confident, attractive, independent women who are appealing to his audiences, Shakespeare questions a power structure that insists once women marry, they must relinquish personal freedom.

While Portia and Beatrice have wit in common, Portia is submissive, while Beatrice is rebellious. We especially see Portia’s submissiveness in contrast to Beatrice’s rebelliousness with respect to their views on marriage. Portia is receptive to the idea of marriage, just not how her father has intended in his will. In contrast, Beatrice rebels against the entire idea of marriage at the start of the play, shown in her proclamation, ‘[I]f he send me no husband; for the which blessing / I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening’ (Much Ado II.i.23-25).

Portia’s role in the play is to marry, showing the constraints of a seemly independent woman. She laments over her situation:

O me, the word “choose!”

I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I

dislike—so is the will of a living daughter curbed by

the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa,

that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?

(Merchant I.ii.21-25)

Portia is acknowledging that even though she wishes to refuse the suitors, she knows she must comply because it is what is expected of her. As Juliet Dusinberre articulates in her novel Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, Portia’s submission illustrates the crossed lines of “outward precept and inward impulse” (85). Portia is not the stereotypical passive woman, accepting her lot: she knows she wants to marry Bassanio. Her obedience is an “act of courtesy…in practice she retains total independence” (85). Even though Beatrice retains her independence, she is still not free to choose whether or not she will marry.

Beatrice, on the other hand, is single by choice:

Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a piece of valiant dust?

To make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none

Adams sons are my brethren,

and truly I hold it a sin to match in my kindred

(II.i.51-56)

During a time in history when a woman’s role was to do all to please the men in her life, Beatrice seeks to please herself. She does not want to settle for just anyone as a husband. Beatrice describes her ideal man as a combination of Signor Benedick and Count John to Leonato. She cleverly uses flattery to turn down a marriage proposal to a man she does not love, the Prince, Don Pedro, “Your Grace is too costly to wear every day” (Much Ado II.i.313). Bevington is accurate stating that “Beatrice remains single, not from love of spinsterhood, but from insistence on a nearly perfect mate” (Intro. Much Ado 217). Benedick is the one man whom Beatrice finds her equal and about whom she is concerned.

Beatrice, like Portia, wants to marry the man of her choice, but this choice is more than a matter of the heart; it is about having a well-made match to her equal. For Beatrice to truly love a man, he must be worthy of respect and must be as intelligent and witty as she. Beatrice describes her ideal match as a man “With a good leg and a good foot, uncle, and money/enough in his purse, such a man would win any woman/in the world, if a’ could get her good-will (Much Ado II.i.13-15). Professor Nadine Page describes Beatrice as not one of Shakespeare’s “romantic dreams”, but rather as a character well-developed according to the Renaissance details of the ‘free’ woman: she is not inhibitive; her talk is frequent and Elizabethan in nature; she knows the kind of a husband she does not want, and she answers her own proposals of marriage” (498). The major difference between Portia and Beatrice in relation to marriage is the freedom Beatrice has in choosing whether or not she will marry.

The Merchant of Venice’s heroine Portia also finds herself, in principle, subject to male dominance, but here, the patriarchal influence appears somewhat sympathetic. Still, Portia remains tied to the societal convention that allows patriarchal control from the grave, and an eventual marriage is to be consequently arranged. Nerissa convinces Portia that even though Portia must adhere to her father’s will that Portia’s

father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their

death have good inspirations. Therefore the lottery that

he hath devised in these three chests of gold, silver,and lead, where

of who chooses his meaning chooses you,

will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one who

shall rightly love

(Merchant I.ii.26-31)

Yet there is a clear indication of a more empowered woman in Portia’s character since she takes the time to examine the suitors, finally deciding on Bassanio. Although Portia is clearly bound, initially, by societal expectations for female obedience, she manages to marry the man she chooses.

Beatrice is not restricted by patriarchal influence. Uncle Leonato exhorts little, if no, control over a niece who declares she will not take a husband until “God make men of some other metal than earth” (Much Ado II.i.55-56), for she has no intention of making “an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl” (Much Ado II.i.57-58). I. Shakespeare demonstrates through Leonato’s handling of Beatrice, that she is a woman worthy of respect. Beatrice exhibits such an emphatic disregard for rigid social conventions that it would appear almost as if Shakespeare found himself reluctant to have his female protagonist fall prey to any form of male superiority. Beatrice is a woman who knows what she wants and will speak her mind without apology or fear as she seeks it and the men let her do this. In fact, Benedick respects and loves Beatrice for her independence.

Portia embodies the virtues of the Elizabethan England ideal. She emerges as an intelligent and resourceful wife but ultimately conforms to marriage and her father’s will. Although Beatrice is intelligent and determined like Portia, she is selective towards those around her. Unlike Portia’s stringent father, Beatrice’s uncle Leonato exhorts little control over the one she decides to marry. The absence of a patriarchal authority enables Beatrice to make her decisions independently. Even though Beatrice chooses marriage, she does so on her own accord, thus allowing her to retain her freedom and become an equal partner to her husband. Through analysis and comparison between the characters of Portia and Beatrice, it is evident that the cultivating empowerment of women remains in definite progression, continuing to impact the lives of women in the modern world and that Beatrice is the ideal model of this modern progression.

Shakespeare’s Female Characters in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado about Nothing” essay

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Shakespeare’s Female Characters in “The Merchant of Venice” and “Much Ado about Nothing”. (2021, Nov 24). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/shakespeares-female-characters-in-the-merchant-of-venice-and-much-ado-about-nothing/

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