The Only Thing Lower than a Jew in Venice is a Woman

OK, so it’s bad to be a Jew in the Venice of The Merchant of Venice. And as we discussed yesterday, not so good to be gay, either, leading to a possible case of massive self-loathing (at least in the case of our titular Merchant, Antonio). And of course Lancelot knows that it stinks to be a slave no matter where you are. But who’s worse off in our play of the month?

Women.

Jessica’s home is “hell” (II.iii.2), and though she seems to be be talking here more of the Jewish state of her house, the argument could be made for this opinion stemming from her state as a woman. Her only way out is for Lorenzo to “keep (his) promise” (II.iii.20), and rescue her from hell.

Portia is trapped by her father’s “virtuous … (and) good inspiration” (I.ii.26,27) of the casket test. She is not allowed to “choose… a husband” (I.ii.21):

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?

— I.ii.21-25

Even once the choice is made for her, however, she is not emancipated. She tells Bassanio,

Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself: and even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord

— III.ii.164-171

Even though just a moment before (“now”) she was “queen o’er (her)self,” now that Bassanio has won her, she now has a “lord… governor… (and) king” in Bassanio. From queen without choices to a wife without the ability to attend a court proceeding without disguising herself AS A MAN…

It seems the only thing worse that being a woman in Venice is a woman who is also a non-Italian: Lancelot’s “Negro” (III.v.35) whom he has impregnated doesn’t even get a name.

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