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Ministry of Education.

Exemplar - Achieved with annotations

Discuss Disguise in The Merchant of Venice

Disguise is one of "The Merchant of Venice" by William Shakespeare's main themes. It's relevant because disguise is used to portray many other themes in the play such as justice, law, revenge, power, loyalty and love. It also adds to the comedic touch of the play as it causes misunderstandings and confusion in Act 5 scene i. The most obvious disguise is Portia and Nerissa's disguise as men but other disguises include Portia's father's selection process being contradicted by Portia's sly planning and Jessica's disguise to marry Lorenzo.

Disguise is used to influence law and justice by Portia and Nerissa in Act III scene iv as they dress up as men to enter the court to rescue Antonio and put the blame on Shylock. In Act IV they enter the court and although Antonio should have to pay the price in someway for not being able to repay the debt to Shylock, he gets away innocent, "Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more/Or less than a just pound..." Shylock should get some sympathy for the way he's been treated but Portia and Nerissa's swaying of opinion turns the table and Shylock must pay the price. Disguise allows the women to participate in the religious debate which ultimately portrays the theme of anti-Semitism as Shylock, a Jew, didn't do anything wrong but the sympathy and court was fought for Antonio.

This disguise also brings up the law and we realize it's not totally unfair as Shylock took a risky choice "A pound of flesh, nearest the merchant's heart, without a drop of blood." This is impossible because obviously Antonio would bleed, and as a consequence Shylock would have to pay the price. Shylock was using the law as a disguise for his true intention which was revenge. Portia's disguise also trapped Shylock into this impossible situation in order to save Antonio.

Portia and Nerissa also use disguise to trick Bassanio because Portia tempts Bassanio to hand over his ring given by Portia as a gift for saving Antonio. He obliges and talks badly about Portia "but life itself, my wife and all the world/Are not with me esteem'd above thy life." Luckily this is only to trick Bassanio and Portia and Nerissa have a good time confusing Bassanio and Gratiano. This causes Gratiano to back Bassanio up and say "Lord Bassanio gave his ring away unto the judge that begg'd it" to take the heat off Bassanio. This opens up the comedy side of the play as Portia only took the ring to find out Bassanio's loyalty to her. This was because she felt she had to find out if Bassanio really was the right husband for her (a sign of self assurance for her sake) and if Antonio or she meant the most to Bassanio. Disguise is used here as a way of testing people and exploring truth.

Other areas of disguise included Portia manipulating the system of finding her suitor. She made sure no one but Bassanio opened the correct casket so she could have the man she loved. She disguises her wish to make sure Bassanio opens the right casket through a song "tell me where is Fancy bred/Or in the heart." This shows that what's on the outside doesn't mean anything and the ugliest looking thing is always the most beautiful on the inside. She did this because she wanted to ensure her future.

Jessica also used disguise to trick Shylock that she would marry a Jew. She used silence as her "weapon" so he didn't suspect anything. She hated her father because he was cruel to her and didn't treat her well. He couldn't decide between his wealth or her. She married Lorenzo and took Shylock's money because she loved Lorenzo despite his religion. She didn't share the same opinions as Shylock, "But though I am a daughter to his blood/I am not of his manners." She didn't care about religion when it concerned love. Why should the two be kept separate? Today it's still looked down on to love someone that doesn't share your religion in many parts of the world. For the same reason, people still hide relationships as Jessica and Lorenzo did in Merchant of Venice.

The characters display their true personalities through disguise. Portia's disguise allows her to see a side of Bassanio she normally wouldn't have and she can decide if he really was worth it or not. She also expresses her stubborn nature to protect Antonio and doesn't face consequences because no one knows she's a woman so she has 'freedom of speech' and power. Shylock subtly uses disguise to cover his true nature "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes...?" which makes us sympathise with him, yet he is often seen as a cruel and hard man. Could this be a result of being spat on by Christians? His openness here softens his character and he gets sympathy. Law is used as a disguise and twisted so Antonio doesn't pay the price and Shylock must become Christian to save his life. This disguise is used because it's an anti-Semitic play and Jews were being converted to Christians at the time.

The nature of disguises are understandable, however, today we wouldn't go about in the same way to prove our boyfriend/husband's love for us as Portia did. If we convert their reasons, we find that we do very similar things to get similar results. Muslims are hated by many people and some of them feel the pressure and change their religion, similar to the hatred of the Jews. The consequences, however, can be very hurtful for the person the disguise was aimed at (Shylock was a victim of this). Shylock lost his pride and his religion all because others didn't agree with it or respect him.

This essay is a bit wordy in places and at times plot driven. There is a focus on the question, however, and an attempt to look at disguise in different forms throughout the play, physical and characters disguising their motives. Points are supported with evidence. 

Overall grade: Achieved.

Published on: 10 Dec 2010