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Shakespeare And Similarity Of Gender Roles

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Shakespeare and Similarity of Gender Roles #2

Shakespeare, although historically gender biased, can be charged with giving both males and females similar characteristic traits within his plays. This can best be proven using the comparison of Portia from the "Merchant of Venice" to King Henry from "Henry V". These two characters, barring gender, show common traits throughout both of these plays. They are also set into similar situations, such as marital issues, prank playing, and the use of disguises.

As audiences are introduced to each of these characters, they are shown both their wealth and intelligence. In "Henry V", the audience is quickly given King Henry's "free-spirited" background, but then is told of his miraculous change in demeanor after his father's death. The Bishop of Canterbury explains it as "But that his wildness, mortified in him,/Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment/ Consideration like an angel came/ And whipped th'offending Adam out of him,/ Leaving his body as a paradise/...Never was such a sudden scholar made" (1.1 27-33).

Portia's intelligence is explained best by the literary critic Mrs. [Anna Brownell] Jameson when she states that Portia is "distinguished by her mental superiority. [In Portia] intellect is kindled into romance by a poetical imagination" (38-39). Portia's sense of humor and spiritedness makes itself known almost immediately when she is first introduced in "The Merchant of Venice" with her waiting woman, Nerissa. In this speech, which concerns the terms of her future marriage according to her deceased fathers' will, Portia artfully and impertinently describes the suitors who have vied for her hand thus far (1.2).

Forced marriage is a common bond that Portia shares with King Henry. According to her deceased fathers' wishes, Portia must marry the man who chooses the correct casket from a choice of three. She has no say in the matter. Henry, also, has no say in whom he must marry. As King, he must cement England's bonds with France, and thus make his marriage to Katharine a condition of Frances' surrender. Portia, happily, ends up marrying the gentleman that she wishes. Henry decides to "woo" the Lady Katharine, supposedly falling in love with her. According to Desmond Seward, " The King...was enchanted by the girl. He regarded her as the only possible bride for him, if contemporaries are to be believed" (130-131).

A strong parallel that Shakespeare creates between these two characters is their use of disguises. While their reasons for adopting their individual disguises are different (Portia to help another; King Henry to ultimately help himself), they both find it necessary to accomplish their goals. Portia, because of her strong love for her husband Bassanio, disguises herself as a "young civil doctor of Rome". In this guise, she successfully defends Bassanio's best friend, Antonio, in court against Shylock. Although William Hazlitt stated that Portia has a "certain degree of affectation and pedantry" about her, he felt that she "undertook and executed the role quite successfully" (168).

King Henry, the night before the Battle of Agincourt, disguises himself as a common soldier in order to move among his men undetected. It is his desire to learn his men's thoughts and feelings about "the great battle in which they have been swept up" that leads to his use of a disguise. Upon later reflection, he finds that he is "troubled by the weight of kingly responsibility" and laments the "lonely isolation of power". Ironically, the only consolation Henry can find in being king is the pomp and ceremony, and elaborate costuming (Quennell 124).

While in disguise, both of our characters can yet again be found in similar situations. Mischievously, they both decide to play pranks on those around them. In the guise of the "civil doctor", Portia demands from her husband, Bassanio, the ring she had given him upon their marriage as payment for saving Antonio's life. Although Bassanio has sworn to Portia that he would never part with the ring, he ultimately agrees and hands it over to his disguised wife as payment. The audience is assured that Portia does this as a lighthearted prank, and not out of spitefulness, when she confides to Nerissa that "we shall have old swearing/ That they did give the rings away to men;/ But we'll outface them, and outswear them too.-" (4.2 15-17).

King Henry, while dressed as a commoner, hears from three soldiers that they doubt the motives and courage of the king. Upon defending "himself", Henry becomes embroiled in a quarrel with a soldier known as Michael Williams. When Williams will not back down, Henry exchanges gloves, and agrees to fight him if they both live through the battle (4.1). Later, after the battle, the king furthers his prank when he asks Fluellen, one of his officers, to wear the glove in his stead, and apprehend anyone that challenges



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