The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare

Act III, scenes iii–v

Shylock remains in control of events in Venice, but Portia, his antagonist, is now moving against him. Her cross-dressing is a device typical of women in Shakespeare’s comedies. Indeed, the play has already shown Jessica dressed as a boy in her escape from Shylock’s house. Dressing as a man is necessary since Portia is about to play a man’s part, appearing as member of a male profession. The demands placed upon her by her father’s will are gone, and she feels free to act and to prove herself more intelligent and capable than the men around her.

The conversation between Jessica and Launcelot in Act III, scene v, does little to advance the plot. It acts as comic relief and conveys the impression of time passing while the various characters converge on the Venetian courtroom. Jessica’s subsequent description of Portia’s perfection to her husband is odd, given how little attention Portia paid to her, but Jessica recognizes that Portia is the center of the social world that she hopes to join.