In Shakespeare's comedy "The Merchant of Venice", how do Portia and Nerissa dominate the men to whom they promise themselves and subvert the social conventions of the time?
The social effect of Shakespeare's plays is formidable. He writes tragedies to invoke catharsis and express the latent violent desires of Elizabethan London society on stage, so that they may be cleansed from the social psyche. His comedies experiment with social norms and assumptions, criticizing xenophobia, misogyny, anti-semitism, and strict patriarchal gender roles, all while making the audience laugh to gain their attention and allow comic relief from the implicit social discourse. For him, the theater was a space to try out new ideas and force the audience to engage from them, if from a distance and only for a short while. His skill in manipulating traditional social norms is formidable, and "The Merchant of Venice" is certainly proof of that. It is indeed a complex play, dealing in social matrices, binaries, and role reversals, all defining features of Shakespeare's comedies. One of the most fundamental binaries in the play is that of Belmont; it is often cast as the opposite of Venice in various readings of the famous play; it represents the artistic sensibilities, romance, aesthetic beauty, and femininity, whereas Venice belongs to the cold, masculine, calculating merchants. It is the realm of women in Belmont, where suitors are secretly ridiculed by the women who should swoon over them, and where women direct and manipulate the dictates of men. Portia in particular constantly engages in such games, instructing Nerissa to place a glass of wine on a false casket to drive away the drunk suitor, and always reciting snippets of the correct box’s inscription as a way of taunting the suitors before they choose. These small resistances to the social patriarchal order foreshadow a greater coming rebellion, which is realized by Portia cross-dressing as a lawyer and using the fidelity rings as a way to control Bassanio. As Karen Newman writes in her essay Portia's Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice, “Gift-giving, then, for Mauss and Lévi- Strauss, establishes social bonds and is a strategy of power.” (p. 20). In this case, Portia takes on the role of a man and forges a bond for herself over which she has complete control. She has begun the process of dominating Bassanio before they were even to marry. The second stage of the women’s domination of the men comes about when, as payment for the defense of Antonio, they demand the rings that they had given to them. With the goal of challenging the homosocial bonds between the three men (Antonio, Graziano, and Bassanio), they essentially force their lovers to choose- Antonio or them? When the men choose Antonio (as Portia and Nerissa knew they would), they return to Belmont and prepare for the final act of their deception. When Bassanio and Graziano arrive, Portia and Nerissa demand to see the rings. As Bassanio regretfully explains the reason he gave it away, Portia cuts him down with her superior rhetoric (mimicking his repetition of the phrase “the ring”): “If you had known the virtue of the ring, / Or half her worthiness that gave the ring, / Or your own honour to contain the ring, / You would not then have parted with the ring.” (p. 37). Nerissa also participates in this chastisement and threatens her husband that she would lay with the clerk if he presented her the ring. After planting this fear in Bassanio and Graziano, they tell them that they did, in fact, sleep with the lawyer and his clerk (which is not, technically, a lie). This confession of infidelity brings the two to the edge of utter social destruction- for, as it is well documented in scholarly works, cheating on a man at this period of time was equivalent to castrating him, leaving him without social position and no mark save his own shame. However, after toying with them, the two women explain the truth, and the ruse is complete. In the end, Portia and Nerissa have shown Bassanio and Graziano that they are in control, and leave that threat hanging in the air that, if they felt they were ever wronged, or even felt a caprice of spite, Bassanio and Graziano would relive the experience of being a cuckold for the rest of their lives, a threat from which they will no doubt profit.
How does Mary Shelley offer social, political, and religious criticism in "Frankenstein"?
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is widely heralded as a critical Romantic response to the Enlightenment-era shift in thought and philosophy. The text is unique and nuanced in that it has various layers of meaning, each inspired by various canonical writers who in turn inspired Shelley. The layers of meaning brought on by the variety of these texts, to which I will refer as “intertextuality”, lead to a symbolic ambivalence in the characters, where each figure cannot be said to represent any one mythological character or philosophical school, but many. It is critical to analyze the various myths, religious stories, and philosophical concepts that inspired her ideas, as well as sources to whom she pays homage through allusions and that she strategically subverts. The purpose of the text is to address her bourgeois contemporaries and engage them in criticizing the accepted social, religious, governmental, and ethical conventions of the time. It is important examine the relationship between the Creator and the Created within the context of Ancient Greek mythology, Christianity, and Frankenstein, and how these contexts come together to advance her criticism of the aforementioned conventions. Furthermore, her literary style plays a critical role in the the work; the Romantic style of writing, rich with imagery, emotion, fantasy, and a deep focus on subjective perspectives rather than objective arguments, presents a form of resistance in and of itself to the literary tradition of the time. Shelley expertly weaves together the philosophical and literary works of Milton, Godwin, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Rousseau (among others) to form a unique commentary on everything from society to nature to the human condition with reference to Christianity. She attempts to show her audience, the late Georgian era bourgeoisie, a new social concept that is more involved and intimate in contrast to the cold detached convention of that time. She also tries to set her audience free from a deeply repressive and harmful system of guilt-based ethics as well as cold, cutting Enlightenment-era skepticism and emotionless logic. Her recasting of the ancient Greek warnings against hubris with her allusions to the Prometheus myth also works to counteract the boundless ambition of scientists at the time. Her moral point is that man is not born evil nor is he inherently sinful, but rather that be becomes evil as a principle of necessity to survive. The only way to alleviate unhappiness is through love of fellow man and nature and obedience to the latter’s laws while distrusting the laws of society and the church. Her style, rich with allusions and imagery, complements and accentuates the themes she discusses. Such an important text such as Frankenstein would have been impossible without her genius skill with words and her extensive education; it is a text that will never fail to provide fresh interpretations and insight into one of the most brilliant minds of the nineteenth century.
How can non-native speakers best improve their eloquence and grammatical accuracy in English?
There are six essential elements to language learning: grammar drills, vocabulary memorization, learning eloquence and good syntax, engaging with native speakers, engaging with media, and engaging with the culture of a group that speaks the language natively. Grammar resources are abundant (about.com, Sparknotes grammar charts, grammargirl.com, etc.), as are vocabulary lists (memrise.com, duolingo etc.) and media (social media and Netflix). Eloquence and engaging with native speakers, however, are a bit more difficult. I've spent a long time putting together resources and training schedules that really help with improving eloquence and syntax, and am happy to have conversations to build confidence and nuanced day-to-day skills! There are also cultural contexts and social histories that are critical to understanding a language, and engaging with someone who has a strong grasp of grammar and "lives the language", so to speak, is exceptionally important.