2.1 General notion of the movement
2.2 Simone de Beauvoir
3. The Renaissance woman
4. Women in The Merchant of Venice
4.4 The ring as symbol
The relationship between women and men and the broader social, judicial, familial, psychological or political ramifications of this relationship is an ongoing topic in the cultural arena with discussions of varying degrees of intensity and often with extremely different conclusions. The movement of feminism can be seen as initiator, but also as a catalyst or as an outcome of these discussions. But there is no monolithic block of feminism and no single literary theory of feminism, but one major landmark in the evolution of feminism is the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s book “Le DeuxièmeSexe” in 1949. By tracing back women’s role and position in society with different methods, she stresses that the oppression of women is due to patriarchy pervading almost all societies.
Turning back to literature, this description of patriarchy can usefully be applied in analysing a drama such as Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (1998). The female characters in this comedy are embedded in societal structures of patriarchy. This can be seen in the influence of father figures, the economic principles which underlie their existence and the final subjection to their husbands even though they actively participate. But eventually, they remain in their traditional role, not being able to subvert the societal system effectively.
To support this thesis, the concept of feminism will be discussed, especially in regard of de Beauvoir’s viewpoint. In a second step, the role of women in the Renaissance will be concerned, immediately referring to the play and its female characters.
2.1 General notion of the movement
There is no single definition of “feminism” as there is no single text which can be referred to as primary source of study. But an aspect which is uniquely shared is that “feminist scholarship both originates and participates in the larger efforts of feminism to liberate women from the structures that have marginalized them; and as such it seeks not only to reinterpret, but to change the world” (Greene/Kahn 1985: 2).Partially originating and being influenced by Marxism, there can be a clear bias towards action and subjectivity, but not all scholars follow this tradition.
In this respect, there are “two major foci of feminist scholarship: deconstructing dominant male patterns of thought and social practice; and reconstructing female experience previously hidden or overlooked” (Greene/Kahn 1985: 6). Deconstruction and reconstruction are important methods of the movement by finding breeches in the social hierarchy. Concerning the problem that there is no single source of constructing a theory, there is at least one principle common analytical aspect: Referring back to the categories of “sex” and “gender”, there is the distinction between essentialism and construction, i.e. the biological essence that determines the sex and the social construction of gender which marks the cultural attributes of it (cf. Robbins 2001: 58). Especially Judith Butler referred to this problem by turning to literary texts as well (cf. 1990).
This implies that
Feminist literary criticism is one branch of interdisciplinary enquiry which takes gender as a fundamental organizing category of experience. This enquiry holds to related premised about gender. One is that the inequality of the sexes is neither a biologically given nor a divine mandate, but a cultural construct, and therefore a proper subject of study for any humanistic discipline. The second is that a male perspective, assumed to be ‘universal’, has dominated fields of knowledge, shaping their paradigms and methods (Green/Kahn 1985: 1f.).
Tracing back their studies to the social hierarchy which determines the different constructions, certain strands of criticism emerged, some rather extreme, even calling for the subordination of the male, and other movements which were relative moderate, calling for a smooth transition into gender equality (cf. Showalter 1985b: 243).
Deriving from the writings of the anthropologist Lévi-Strauss, Furman argues that “literature may be thought of as a representation of life, but literature can also be viewed as a non-referential linguistic system of communication” (1985: 64). In this regard, she sees marriage as an important tool of communication, as “linguistic operation” that helps to interact in society. This becomes especially important for The Merchant of Venice when the actual meaning of “marriage” is concerned.
Robbins answers the question why literary texts are so important for feminists because “the word and the world are related” (2001: 48), “words and the world are politically related” (2001: 50) and because “feminist theories focus on women in relation to the politics of words and the politics of the world” (2001: 51). The major medium of literary texts are words and thus, the clear links which can be discerned between the cultural construction in and of a text and the role of women can be part of a feminist analysis. For Robbins, “political” and “politics” can be understood as “power”, directly linking the concept of hierarchy to the literary texts. “Thus a feminist interpretation of literature involves decoding many of the same systems of signification with which social scientists are concerned” (Greene/Kahn 1985: 6), which means that sociological, biological, political, even economic structures need to be analysed in order to deconstruct the role of women. A framework for this is what Simone de Beauvoir contributed to the cultural arena.
2.2 Simone de Beauvoir
“The Second Sex – which opens with a single-word question – ‘Women?’ – is a remarkable and powerful pioneering study of sexual difference, examining women as the other [… and] draws a painful picture of patriarchal injustice and domination” (Lane 2006: 59). This quotation already marks the fundamental topic of de Beauvoir: patriarchy and female subjugation.
For de Beauvoir, to be or to think as a man is normal, but to be or think as woman is something special. Due to mental or physiological differences a women can only be seen in relation to a man, which leads her to argue that “he” is the “absolute” and “she” is the “other” (cf. Beauvoir 1968: 10f.) and often this “other” is seen as something negative, or even as evil, especially religion is criticised for its misogyny (cf. Beauvoir 1968: 85). Men make women to what they are and theirexistence depends on the rights which are granted by men. Published in 1949, this was perceived as a harsh attack on men’s broad-scaled patriarchy.
Problematically, women never offered alternative cultural values which could oppose those of men. Female attempts to change the social situation usually aimed at gaining the same influence men had (and have). This means that men grant those cultural values and economic advantages to women which makes them dependent again (cf. Beauvoir 1968: 72).
It is especially problematic for de Beauvoir that during history it was and in some cultures still is a common principle that most rights for women were gone after their marriage. Often they are objects in the hands of their husbands. Practically spoken, this means that they are judicially and economically deprived and even though they are often symbolically highly valued, they are – in fact – suppressed. This implies that they see themselves as men see them which makes it even moredifficult to change these cultural principles (cf. Beauvoir 1968: 148f.). Especially in higher social classes the roleof women was diminished to some acts of representation (not to speak of their function as procreator to ensure male heirs).
 In the following, this edition will be cited by “(act,scene,line)” in the text body.
 Although feminism and gender studies share some principles, they should not be equated. Especially the strong focus of feminism on societal structures is a distinctive element, while gender studies heavily refer to linguistic principles.
 Cf. the definition of Harmon/Holman: Feminist criticism analyses “the works of male authors, especially in the depiction of women and their relation to women readers. [… Additionally,] feminist criticism has become a wide-ranging exploration of the construction of gender and identity, the role of women in culture and society, and the possibilities of women’s creative expression” (2003: 297). Besides the fact that some of the former editions of this book do not even contain any definition of “feminism”, they refer to “male authors” in the first place.