115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Seeing Bellario and Balthasar: Performance, Professional Identity, and Material Culture in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

Lee Emrich, University of California, Davis

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is often used to discuss the mingling between early modern theatre and law. A particular nexus, often left unexplored, is these two professions' dual reliance on material culture to instantiate the various identities required of their professionals. This presentation argues Portia's performance as a doctor of law is not only an instance of gendered cross-dressing but also of occupation crossing as well and her knowledge of law is not only of its ethical implications but also its socially constructed nature.


Scholars often place Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the center of inquiries examining the intermingling of early modern law and theatre—often thinking through the various “trials” in the play as representative of legal questions often encountered by early modern subjects. I, rather differently, approach the play from a performance studies aspect, eschewing a discussion of law as an abstract concept for the “law” as an temporal construct inhabited by and made visual through laboring bodies. Both the law and theatre were (and are) professions subjected to expectations of performance, labor, talent/expertise, morality, and aesthetics—expectations that often concretized on the visuality of laboring bodies. Lawyers, like actors, depended upon the construction and performance of identity through dress and the lawyer’s gown was a key material marker delineating the legal profession. Many occupations were recognized visually through certain material markers (dress, tools, etc.); at times, these associations were so strong that these material artifacts became identity markers with the ability to craft perceptions onto a body that chose to wield/wear those material markers.

My paper intervenes into discussions of early modern identities to argue for occupation, and its ties to material culture, as a key category of analysis we often don’t see discussed enough in critical scholarship; I also intervene in critical discussions of The Merchant of Venice to argue how Portia’s performance as Balthasar, a doctor of law filling in for Bellario, highlights the social, material constructed-ness of the “law.” I do not see Portia as either a vindictive lover using the courtroom as a space for revenge or as a woman rigorously upholding contract law, but rather I see Portia’s journey to and through the courtroom as one of conscious knowledge of and reliance on the ways occupations rely on material culture to make themselves and their expertises legible—particularly, it highlights the performative requirements of legal professionals on early modern stages. A key aspect of Portia’s success in the courtroom lies in her ability to not only successfully cross-dress across a gender line, a performance feat the play overtly highlights, but in her awareness of the social performance of expertise rendered through the “notes and garments” she gathers from Bellario. Though this reliance is only subtly and swiftly hinted at, Portia’s awareness of the legal identity she needs to navigate and have recognized should not be undiscussed in thinking through her relationship to the law—and her knowledge invites further inquiry into the role of material culture in navigating occupational identity more broadly in early modern culture.