The Merchant Of Venice - Male Disguises

Essay by PaperNerd ContributorHigh School, 10th grade November 2001

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The most common theme used in Shakespeare's plays is dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a situation in a play where the audience knows something that the characters in the play do not. A typical form of dramatic irony in Shakespearean plays occurs when a female heroine disguises herself as a male. The audience knows her true identity, but the rest of the characters in the play are not aware of who she really is. This theme is present in almost all of Shakespeare's comedies, including in The Merchant of Venice, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night.

In The Merchant of Venice, this type of dramatic irony causes marital problems between four of the main characters. The two male protagonists, Bassanio and Gratiano, go to Venice to help their friend, Antonio, who is in debt to a banker named Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, their wives, Portia and Nerrisa, disguise themselves as men and follow them to Venice.

Portia assumes the name of Balthazar, a young but learned Doctor of Law, and just as Shylock is about to take the pound of Antonio's flesh promised to him in the bond, Portia uses the exact wording of the bond to stop him. Furthermore, she uses the law of Venice to punish him for attempting to kill Antonio. Afterwards, Bassanio offers Balthazar a reward for his services. Instead of accepting the reward, Portia decides to test his loyalty and asks for his wedding ring. Bassanio refuses, and explains its importance to her. She accepts his refusal. Gratiano then convinces Bassanio that he should have given Balthazar the ring. Bassanio catches up to the Doctor and hands over his marriage ring. After this, Nerrisa, disguised as Balthazar's clerk, decides to test her husband, Gratiano. She also tricks him into giving her...