Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Role Playing in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" and "As You Like It"

Jessica Mason
ENG 309 Early Shakespeare
Dr. David Willbern - UB
April 26 2005

Mr. Dress Up:
Role Playing in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and
As You Like It

The Elizabethan Voice

Elizabeth I led England in a powerful and enduring forty year reign, but despite her presence, women led an invisible existence. As much as the idea of a female ruler sounds empowering, the many restrictions surrounding women reveals that this is an illusion. Although she reigned as Queen, Elizabeth assumed this position in response to the death of a patriarchal relation, and felt the influences of other males throughout her life. If she had desired to change the status of women, she would have faced a great deal of opposition for making any efforts to do so. Without knowing exactly how Elizabeth felt about the status of women, we do know that “influential” women were privileged and few in number (Greenblatt 9). Of course, even the power that aristocratic women possessed was a result of an unchallenged and hierarchical system of oppression, so it is not a fair assumption that wealthy Elizabethan women were privileged in the way that wealthy women of the 20th century would be. Heteronormativity, a social framework and perspective that assumes a white, heterosexual, male voice, was influential during the Elizabethan period (1558-1603) and still exists today. During the Elizabethan period, heteronormativity was devastating to women, whether or not they recognized it.

Challenging Ages of Audiences: Shakespeare’s Choices

The Elizabethan voice that is accessible to modern audiences is a male one. Works created by men that involve female characters and voices provide us with a source to examine women, but they do not provide us with the actual voices of Elizabethan women. Female characters in Shakespeare’s plays provide a glimpse into what life may have been like for women. Through language, subtext, playfulness, and theatrical conventions, Shakespeare’s works explore and challenge controversial subjects. Shakespeare gave life to female characters in his plays, while providing a safe space for men to explore and play with sexuality and the relationship between masculinity and femininity on the stage. Elements of plot, character and language reveal restrictions on gender roles, sexual desires and practices, social institutions, and women’s and men’s behavior in social, religious, and private contexts. Using the same elements that he used to create space for thought, Shakespeare also challenged some of the above restrictions. In both The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice and As You Like It, female characters use disguise and make believe to enter worlds of masculinity and relations where an equal balance of power exists. At the same time, an underlying homoerotic subtext exists between characters. Shakespeare’s transformation of traditionally romantic relationships between men and women into homoerotic friendships attests to the timeless popularity of his plays.

Gender-Neutrality and Make Believe In and Out of the Court and On the Stage

Make believe is central to childhood, as we know it, and although that part of human nature becomes less visible as we grow older and become caught up in codes for appropriate behavior, our childlike playfulness is expressed in different “adult” practices. Queen Elizabeth was not unfamiliar with theatrical play. In fact, she was an active patron of court masques, where she engaged in an “atmosphere of romance” through theatrical and other entertainments (Greenblatt 19). Aside from her delight in listening and seeing others play on the stage, she herself filled a role requiring that she be able to please and command different audiences, in a player-like fashion. She adjusted to supporters and skeptics, as well as parliament and spies (Greenblatt 19), changing her dress and behavior accordingly. Theatrical play exists off of the stage, but play on the stage requires the suspension of disbelief. The theatre has survived for centuries because it is the most open and acceptable space available for adults to express themselves freely. Sanctioned play is best found in the arts, but play is everywhere; it is merely disguised or artificially labeled as something else. After all, visible and invisible forms of play exist because of a human need to experience our nature, as complex beings.

On the stage, female characters enter into their self-created worlds of play primarily through language, but also through physical appearance. Portia, in The Merchant of Venice, is one of the most dynamic and intelligent of Shakespeare’s female characters. Her movement into the court best demonstrates this. Although she is accompanied by Nerissa throughout the play, Portia creates, directs and executes her plan without hesitation. Her nature is impulsive and active, which are qualities traditionally associated with masculinity. Following her instinct, she is led into a sphere that would have seemed foreign to many women, but suits her well. As she commands her private, domestic sphere, without hesitation she easily moves into and successfully commands the public, male-dominated sphere of the court. Disguise allows for her to be herself and occupy a position of authority over men and women. This is possible for Portia because she is beautiful, wealthy, and has connections to political figures, but it is also possible because of her desire and drive for autonomy. The court serves as a stage within the world of the play, where play and foolery exist.

When Portia enters into the world of the stage-court, she doesn’t politely observe from the rafters. Instead, she assumes the respectable and much-demanded role of a lawyer. She transforms the stage-court, becoming the lead player and commanding the nearly all-male cast of fellow players to interact and pay close attention to her. Though Nerissa follows her onto the court-stage in men’s attire, her quiet behavior greatly contrasts with Portia’s boldness, and this contract signifies a quality of character in Portia that is unique. She does achieve power through a playful “transvestism” (Maus 1087), but even more powerful is the personality that exists behind the disguise. Portia is not only bold, but also extremely intelligent, and her confidence is well-placed. She trusts in her ability to blend into the world of men, she makes her grand entrance into the court, and she offers her anticipated and respected wisdom to men who are powerless without her professional opinion. Disguise allows characters to express their complex natures, but language is the strongest and most truthful force. When Portia proceeds with her argument, she engages the audience, as well as the men of the court. Turning the law around through a quick interpretation, Portia commands:

Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. If thou tak’st more
Or less than a just pound, be it but so much
As makes it light or heavy in the substance
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple—nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.
(4.1. 319-327)

Portia is not merely playing when she gives Shylock his rights. Her argument is brilliant and it is crafted on the spot. Her thorough delivery of the image of the cutting off of flesh is straightforward and graphic, which fits and even surpasses traditional notions of masculinity. Not only are Portia’s words graphic, but she also speaks in an active manner, offering detailed directions to reveal her plan. The use of imagery and authoritative language is not unnatural to Portia.

Portia’s language transforms gender, because she does not imitate or play the part of a man by using masculine language, but instead she uses natural and refined language of her own, and doing so fits the disguise that she wears. Her intellect is superior, as she works closely with her knowledge of the law to make a fair and precise argument. Much like her success at entering and participating in the court, Portia cleverly interprets the law so well that she turns it back around on Shylock, rescuing and rewarding her husband’s best man. Shakespeare’s theatrical element of disguise is the tool through which Portia is able to express her nature and transform traditional gendered boundaries. The court in The Merchant of Venice serves as a platform for Portia’s nature to be expressed without restraint, and is akin to Shakespeare’s stage, where the language of the play boldly presented itself through elements of production, such as costume and acting.

Gender in the Forest Court

Shakespeare transforms the stage and challenges traditional standards of gender-appropriateness through elements of disguise, language and place in As You Like It. In The Merchant of Venice, the court represents the means through which characters explore their identities. In As You Like It, a forest serves this function. The forest allows for characters to play in an idealized court, which resembles the urban court in structure, but differs in formality and rigidity. Thomas Lodge’s romance Rosalind takes place in the French Forest of Ardenne, whereas Shakespeare’s play appears in the First Folio as the English Forest of Arden (Howard 1592). While this implies a theme of complexity, it further implies the flexibility of such a place. Serving as a play place, the ideal forest may differ for each person, but would likely share various attributes, such as freedom of expression, romance, luxury, and enjoyment. Different forms of love can coexist in the Forest of Arden(nne), including love between two women or two men. These affections are not presented as overtly homoerotic because they do not need to be. The otherness of the forest departs from the reality of court life, where rigid roles and classifications are prominent.

While Rosalind and Orlando are central to the romance in the forest, language and costume offer the audience the opportunity to explore homoerotic romances that might exist in such a place. There is a homoerotic undertone in Rosalind’s relationship with Celia, a relationship that fades into the background once Orlando’s relationship with Rosalind begins to take shape. Celia expresses a rebelliously fervent affection for Rosalind, saying, “so thou hadst been still with me I could have taught my love to take thy father for mine” (1.2. 8-9). Making a promise to honor Rosalind above her own father is a bold and unusual action, and it implies that she feels the strongest connection to Rosalind. Her reference to sharing one father with Rosalind implies a sisterly bond, but might alternatively imply a homoerotic desire to share the same father through marriage. Despite the sisterly relationship that exists throughout the rest of the play, the language provokes the possibility for a homoerotic element to exist between Celia and Rosalind. Rosalind blossoms in confidence and awareness when she transitions into Ganymede (a male, homoerotic mythological figure), but Celia, who transitions into Aliena fades into the background. This can be understood as a difference between the freedom of expression that gender stereotypes allow for men and women, or it may imply an actual change in the relationship between the cousins. Rosalind is not only preoccupied with romantic love, but also with the liberating experience of playing a man.

Major and Minor Exchanges: Rings, Vows, and Identity

Early in The Merchant of Venice, Portia spoke plainly and dramatically with men. A prime example of this was her planning of and executing of a game for her suitors. She played an active role in managing her future by setting up a tricky test for her male suitors, and her language was the source of her success at tricking suitors out of marrying her. Two suitors who approached the leaden casket and read, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” felt threatened and put off by the statement (2.7 16). Their assumption that a stereotypically feminine clue would lead them to Portia’s promise of marriage was incorrect, and served as a device for Portia to play an active role in her marital union. Even more impressive is Portia’s ability to protect herself from a future husband who would make such assumptions. Her careful effort to plan her marriage reflects Portia’s keen awareness of the society she inhabits. Marriage is an institution that functions as a means to establish and maintain financial, sexual and social order according to traditional doctrine for class and gender. Elizabethan marriages were motivated by religion and economics, and both husband and wife made contributions to the “household economy” (Best “The Marriage Ceremony”).

Without her father, Portia does not have to deal with the patriarchal influence in the same manner that she would if he were an active part of her life. She is also able to actively participate in her financial contribution to the union. Although his wishes affect her, his absence provides her with space to make her own arrangements. It is likely that Portia’s ambition and creativity were possible because of the absence of a direct patriarchal influence. According to stereotypes that portray women as being weak and passive, Portia’s mischievous ways would have led her into danger or trouble, but that is not the case in The Merchant of Venice. Rather, Portia’s scheming strengthens her union with Bassanio. Besides having arranged her union through a game, it is significant that Portia gave a ring to Bassanio, implying that she has the upper hand in their union. Acting on her own behalf, she is able to manipulate Bassanio’s experiences. By giving him the gift of a wedding ring, which symbolized perfection and purity (Best “Ring-poetry”), she was making an tacit demand of Bassanio. Such expectations would traditionally be a primary expectation for a future bride, but Portia reverses this code of conduct. To make matters even more complicated, Portia manages to take back the ring and return it again later, after having Bassanio prove his worth. By the end of the play, Portia proved to be a heroine, not only in her ability to restore order, but also in her ability to be influential.

A Cast of Players and The Absentees

Complicating the issue of women’s role in Shakespeare’s plays is the fact that women were not on the stage. Often, male child-actors who hadn’t fully experienced puberty would fill the female roles (Best “Child Actors”). It is impossible to move past the fact that regardless of age, the value of men in Elizabethan society was severely out of balance with that of women. Rather than allowing a woman to participate in a theatrical production, boys were recruited to work with adult men. This feature of the theatre was controversial to puritans (Best “Child Actors”) and, more importantly, demeaning to women. Although we do not have evidence that Shakespeare directly challenged the absence of women on the stage, he certainly challenged gender roles that have a negative effect on women and men in his use of disguise interspersed with character and plot. Having a boy play a female character who plays a male character who plays a female character indirectly challenges gender norms on multiple levels. As Shakespeare’s work engages and perplexes modern audiences, it is fair to assume that his work also had an irreplaceable effect on Elizabethan audiences.

Works Cited

Best, Michael. “The Marriage Ceremony.” Shakespeare’s Life and Times. 2001. Internet Shakespeare Ed. 17 Apr. 2005 .

---. “Ring-poetry.” Shakespeare’s Life and Times. 2001 .

---. “Child Actors.” Shakespeare’s Life and Times. 2001 .

Greenblatt, Michael, et al. “The Legal Status of Women.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 9-10.

---. “A Female Monarch in a Male World”
Howard, Jean E. “As You Like It.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1591-1598.
Maus, Katharine Eisaman. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton & Co, Inc., 1081-1088.

Shakespeare, William. “As You Like It.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997.1600-1656.

---. “The Comical History of the Merchant of Venice, or Otherwise Called the Jew of Venice.” Greenblatt 1090-1144.

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