Merchant of Venice

Mercy and the Masquerade: Trial and Performance in The Merchant of Venice

According to the evidence we have, it seems Shakespeare wrote his plays exclusively to be performed. We are repeatedly reminded of this fact; there are throughout many of his plays moments of self-conscious performance, performance that reflects the nature of the very spectacle that occurred on stage for an audience. Though this dramatic principle is perhaps most explicit in A Midsummer Night's Dream, with the guild play put on by Bottom and his buddies exhibiting a thematic correspondence with the performance actually framing that play, we can see it too in The Merchant of Venice, where a less overt, though more momentous, example of performance occurs. I mean of course Portia's impersonation of a lawyer, and the scene of her trial of Shylock, a true courtroom drama.

In the atmosphere of masquerade that forms an undercurrent to the actions of the play, Portia's decision to disguise both her aspect and her profession serves to question the larger societal structures that seem to require these ruses. Why must it be Portia, a woman, and in disguise, that reverses the edicts of Venetian law? Why must a masquerade exist in order to correct law towards mercy? This masquerade is what averts the course of a potential...

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