This article uses Judith Butler’s work on speech-act theory in Excitable Speech to examine The Merchant of Venice. Portia as a woman and Shylock as a Jew are outsiders, and both use the language of the Venetian ruling class to attempt to become legitimate speakers. In other words, they use the language of the powerful to challenge power. Shylock is unsuccessful in achieving the status of legitimate speaker and is punished for his attempt. In contrast, Portia disguises herself as a man and has a legitimate speaker, Bellario, vouch for her performance. This combination leads to her success. Both Shylock and Portia highlight the exclusions of the Christian Venetian men’s normative language, though they do so differently. Shylock highlights that an illegitimate speaker can appropriate the language and the anxiety this creates. Portia’s success demonstrates the failure of those in an authoritative position to accurately identify illegitimate speakers. Additionally, Bellario’s letter demonstrates that not all authorized speakers are invested in maintaining its exclusive hegemony. This suggests that as long as the exclusions that shore up authority are based at least in part on visual recognition, there exists the possibility of exploiting visual ambiguity to produce the effect of authority.

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