Ever since Eve tempted Adam to eat the Forbidden Fruit, women have been deemed as inferior to men and condemned to a life of being “delicate with [a] needle. ” (4. 1. 185) Nowadays women have virtually equal rights in most cultures, but in the 16th century misogyny was in its prime. Books were written by Shakespeare’s contemporaries stating that women were to “holde [their] tonge demurely” and were to be owned by their father or their husband. In both Othello and The Merchant of Venice, however, Shakespeare presents female characters who do not strictly follow the standards set by the patriarchal society.
“Desdemona’s unconventiality is… evidence of her unnaturalness. She goes against accepted codes of female behaviour in her society by being undutiful to her father, forward with her suitors and outspoken in the senate. ” (Othello, Phillip Allan Updates, p. 89) In the light of this quotation, and focusing primarily on Portia and Desdemona, compare and contrast Shakespeare’s dramatic presentation of female characters in terms of the limits which their patriarchal societies impose upon them, considering how audiences of different periods might react to this.
Whether or not Shakespeare is presenting women in these two plays in a positive light is debatable. On the one hand, both Portia and Desdemona are worshipped by men and have an excellent reputation. Cassio’s remark that Desdemona is “a most exquisite lady” (2. 3. 18) could just as easily be applied to Portia, and likewise Bassanio’s comment that Portia is “of wondrous virtues” (1. 1. 163) could be applied to Desdemona. This implies that the women are seen as virtuous and as “perfect women. ” However, Portia and Desdemona differ greatly in the way that their audience perceive them.
Whereas Portia is generally seen as inspiring and quick-witted, Desdemona has been deemed “pathetic” by many critics. After seeing a seeing a performance of Othello in 1660, Samuel Pepys wrote: “A pretty lady that sat by me called out to see Desdemona smothered. ” Needless to say, some audiences cannot sympathise with Desdemona. Whilst Portia is seen as intelligent, Desdemona is “extremely naive. ” It seems ludicrous to a modern audience that Desdemona has to ask Emilia whether “there be women do abuse their husbands” (4. 3.61) by cheating on them. There are suggestions that this is because women were “kept cloistered” and were not aware of such things.
This may be true but nevertheless, Desdemona shows this naivety again when she incessantly demands that Othello should give Cassio “present reconciliation. ” (3. 3. 47) It is clear from watching Othello that Desdemona’s naivety is a flaw. Even Vives, who believed that “maydes … be but lytell mete for lernyng” writes that women need “wysedome. ” However, perhaps this naivety is, in part, a facade.
Both Portia and Desdemona diminish themselves when talking to men, suggesting that it was desirable for women to be seen by men as having “inferior intellect. ” There is plenty of evidence to confirm that educated women were seen as unnatural. Vives writes that “lerned women [should] be suspected of many” and some were even accused of “witchcraft. ” Therefore Portia’s claim that she is “unschool’d” (3. 2. 159) and Desdemona’s allusion to her “simpleness” (1. 3. 247) could be an attempt to appear submissive and more desirable to men.
Shakespeare could be mocking this “bimbo” phenomenon, implying that it is unfair and unnatural for women to feign idiocy. On the other hand Shakespeare could be suggesting that men should be aware that women can be deceitful and manipulative. According to Peter Malin, men were terrified of being deceived by women, and having their reputations damaged by being “cuckolded. ” Both Desdemona and Portia are deceitful. Brabantio’s description of “a maiden never bold” (1. 3. 95) is a far cry from the “outspoken” Desdemona that we see in the Senate, showing that she has been putting on a facade in front of her father.
Portia, likewise, deceives Lorenzo by saying that she and Nerissa are going to “live in prayer and contemplation” (3. 4. 28) until their husbands return. Even minor female characters have manipulative tendencies. Nerissa, for example , disguised as the clerk, is able to “get [her] husband’s ring. ” (4. 2. 13) It is possible to say that the women only appear deceitful because they are secretly breaking the constraints of society. If women had the same rights as men, perhaps they wouldn’t have to act in secret.
However, Desdemona’s blatant disregard for society’s strictures is shown by her elopement. Although now it seems archaic to ask permission to be married, at the time it was compulsory if the marriage were to seem “lawful. ” Edwin Sandys preached in 1585 that all marriages must “have the full consent of their parents” or else the marriage will be the “cause of great sin and much misery. ” The elopement with Othello was a “dishonour” of “so flood-gate and o’erbearing nature” (1. 3. 57) that she is “dead” (1. 3. 59) to her father.
From then on, it seems that Desdemona is doomed, as her reputation as an innocent girl is tainted. In the Olivier Othello, Desdemona runs into the Senate and embraces Othello. This is seen as romantic to a modern audience, due to our intolerance of racism. However in Shakespeare’s time the relationship would be seen by many as against the will of God. The audacity that Desdemona shows would have been seen as shocking by the majority of the Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare’s portrayal of Portia is completely contrasted with that of Desdemona.
Portia is paradoxically conformist and non-conformist at the same time. She preserves her reputation by obeying her father’s will, yet some of her actions suggest that she is rebelling against the patriarchal society. For example, she asks Nerissa to “put a glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket” (1. 2. 59) before the alcoholic suitor from Germany takes his pick of the caskets.
Moreover, critics such as Moody and Fiedler have argued that although Portia decided that she will not “teach [Bassanio] how to choose right,” (3. 2.10-11) she hints that the correct casket is the leaden one, since the song before his selection has the words “bred”, “head” and “nourished” in it, which all coincidentally rhyme with “lead. ” They believe that it is “quite unbelievable” that Bassanio “should have chosen it unprompted. ” However, this is a rather cynical view and it violates “the dramatic and literary conventions the play exploits. ” Before Bassanio chooses the casket, we know that he is going to choose correctly, since the “third lover [in a fairytale] will free the imprisoned princess from enchantment after the first two suitors have failed.
” Bassanio, with “no purse of [his] own, is a man who is “seemingly a failure in the eyes of the world. ” By fairytale convention, it is necessary that he will “emerge triumphant. ” If he received help from Portia then he would not be the hero that the fairytale genre demands of him. However, unlike Othello which is indisputably a Tragedy, The Merchant of Venice does not conform to the typical comedy, so why must the play conform to the conventions set by fairytales? Shakespeare could by toying with the idea of genre, as well as the typical portrayal of women.
If this is the case, then it seems as though Portia is only obeying the rules insofar as the public eye can see. She does not strictly play by the rules, yet she does not break any, so she cannot be punished for her actions as Desdemona is. The most obvious example of Portia disobeying the rules is when she dresses as a man. She is well aware that “a maiden hath no tongue” (3. 2. 8) and so disguises herself as a man to give herself a voice. Some critics like Lisa Jardine have argued extensively to prove that cross dressing was purely to satisfy the lusts of the Elizabethan audience.
Although this could be the case, a more widely acknowledged and accepted view is that cross-dressing makes us “question what it means to be a man or woman. ” In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare allows Portia to command respect in Venice, proving that the only “thing” that separates the two sexes is, as Gratiano crudely puts it, “the young clerk’s pen. ” (5. 1. 237) Cross dressing is a dramatic device used by “women” in several of Shakespeare’s plays, which allows the women to infiltrate the patriarchal society.
In Portia’s case, this proves worthwhile, and the audience are left with a sense that, actually, it is the women who are in control. The two plays suggest that although women are limited by the patriarchal society in which they live, they do have some power over men, even if not immediately obvious. It is, of course, a mere woman who destroys “brave Othello” (2. 1. 38) whom even the Barbarians and Turks could not harm, and it is a woman who ultimately saves Antonio’s life. However the power of women shifts at different stages of the relationship. In both plays the couples are at their happiest during courting and immediately after marriage.
During this time Desdemona is described by Cassio as the “captain’s captain,” (2. 1. 74) and Bassanio lovingly refers to Portia as his “torturer. ” (3. 2. 37) Both of these names imply a position of power that the women hold over their respective husbands. However both of the marriages seem to deteriorate when the wives become merely possessions to their husbands. Othello loses his trust and succumbs to the “green-eyed monster” (3. 3. 168) and Bassanio gives the ring away. This suggests that women initially have a status of power, but this is lost once they are handed from their fathers to their husbands.