Resources show that in the 16th Century, Venice was as much a place in the imagination as it was in reality. In both plays Shakespeare depicts Venice as a place which is exotic and completely different to England. This idea is further developed when we see the Court scene and Senate scene. It is in these two scenes where Portia and Desdemona are at the peak of their dominance. It seems contradictory seeing as the women are at their most powerful in a place of ultimate masculinity.
The women are empowered by the male presence and the freedom of speaking in public, rather than feeling intimidated. David McPherson writes that the boldness [shown in the court room] may be explicable in the light of Venetian education for a few privelaged women. Shakespeare could have been aware of this, and could be presenting Venice and its women as more socially advanced. It could, of course, be interpreted in completely the opposite way, saying that Venetian women are unruly and unnatural precisely because they are educated.
The plays can be interpreted in numerous ways according to the whims of the director and the actors. There can be feisty Desdemonas and arrogant Portias; yet a lascivious Desdemona and a humbled Portia can work just as well. In the future, as the balance of power between men and women inevitably changes, the play will once again be seen in a different light. We shall never know exactly how Shakespeare intended these characters to come across, but they certainly show how powerful women can be, even when they are oppressed by a patriarchal and patrilineal society.