The position of women in Renaissance England was quite different from their position today. Women had few rights. For example, they could not attend university, they could not vote or be elected to political office, and they had very limited control over their own property. As children, they were utterly subjugated to their parents, especially their fathers. As wives, they were under the domination of their husbands, who had control of all their personal property. Women had little recourse to the law, which of course admitted no women as judges or attorneys. That is why Portia, capable and intelligent though she maybe, must assume the disguise of Dr. Balthasar in The Merchant of Venice when she appears in the trial scene. To enter a man's world, as she and Nerissa do in act 4, they must appear as men. At first, like Rosalind in As You Like It, they joke about it (3.4.60-80), but during the trial they behave generally very seriously indeed.
The ideal woman in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was one who, at least in men's minds, was submissive, meek, obedient to her lord and master, virtuous, soft-spoken or (better) silent, and modest in both dress and comportment. Were she otherwise, for example, if she dared to oppose her husband's will, she was subject to his discipline, which could involve a beating, or possibly worse. Petruchio's treatment of his shrewish wife, Katherine, in TheTaming of the Shrew
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Publication information: Book title: Understanding The Merchant of Venice:A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Contributors: Jay L. Halio - Author. Publisher: Greenwood Press. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 2000. Page number: 93.
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