Two effeminate young men in dresses prance onto the stage. When the laughter and cheering stop one of them agreeably lisps to the other, “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.” When King James saw The Merchant of Venice in 1605 this is probably what Portia looked and sounded like. In Shakespeare’s all-male theatre actors in drag could be serious representations of women—or men in dresses funny.The Merchant was a comedy, with Shylock as a comic villain (see Quadrant, March 2017) and Portia and her maid Nerissa comic heroines. Imagine a young seventeenth-century Frankie…
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