The setting of the play is in the 17th century. The words uttered are by an heiress of Belfont, Portia, in response to her marriage deal. By her father’s virtue she will marry the man who chooses the correct treasure chest. Using irony and oxymoron, she tells of her position.
Portia talks about the lack of options for the woman, where the man makes the decisions for a woman without consultation. “The brain may device laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree,” (Shakespeare 7). Here, Portia talks about her will to want to disobey her father but she is left at odds. For in the same way that the blood depends on the control of the brain, she is at the control of men in her life. She has opinions on what she would like to do, to decide on her choice of the husband (Shakespeare 7). This relates to the patriarchal position assumed by the men in the Sexual Difference chapter by Bennett and Royle (2010). The oxymoron tells of the behaviour expected of women because they are submissive to the decisions of men (Andrew and Nicholas 153). Thus, although Portia may want to marry for another reason apart from marrying the man who chooses the correct treasure box, she has no option. Just like the blood, she only follows what is dictated of her, for she assumes no power without the man, in the same way that blood has no control over the body without the commands by the head.
The probable fate of women would be different if only they had equal power in their fates as do the men. Portia says, “If to do were as easy as to know what to do, chapels had been churches,” (Shakespeare 7). She emphasises the different choices that women would make in their lives. John’s wife in the chapter Sexual Difference (2004) cannot talk about her ill health to her husband because he does not believe her. She uses irony to describe his wisdom in telling that she is not sick (Andrew and Nicholas 153). Amidst the neglect and ignorance by her husband, John’s wife is powerless and remains sick.
Irony best represents the state of women in the 17th century. “So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father,” (Shakespeare 7). It is the representation of how powerless women are to the decisions and opinions of men. These remarks represent how a woman “cannot expect to be taken seriously,” (Andrew and Nicholas 152). Irony exists in the sense that the father is dead but the daughter, Portia, is still under his command. The Sexual Difference (2004) chapter talks of John’s wife who expects to be laughed at and scoffed by her husband. It is ironic to expect such harsh treatment from family members, such as is the fate for Portia where she will marry whoever choses the correct box.
Women’s decisions are controlled by the men in their lives; whether living or dead; irrational or rational. Women have only the decision to follow their men for as Portia puts it, she can neither choose nor refuse.
Andrew, Bennet and Royle Nicholas . “Sexual Differemce.” Bennet, Andrew and Nicholas Royle. Lieterature, Criticism and Theory. 3. Hurlow: Pearson Longman, 2004. 152-161. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 1. Vol. 1. England: Oxford, 1600. Print.