“The Merchant of Venice” is believed to have been written in the 16th century and it is to a large extent reflective of England at the time, which was a patriarchal society. Portia’s character embodies the characteristics of an ideal woman at the time that arguably defers to her father and eventually her husband. However, as the play advances we see a different side of Portia.
Shakespeare introduces her character in a very conventional way. He uses Bassanio as a device for introducing the character of Portia. The audience is treated to Bassanio’s perception of Portia. It is through him the audience forms an impression of Portia, with the aid of his effective use of imagery. Bassanio begins with: “In Belmont there is a lady richly left,And she’s fair, and – fairer than that word –
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To get a clearer picture of who Portia is from Bassiano’s perspective, we consider his choice of words in his description. For example, “Richly left” – her wealth is the first quality the audience learns about before we hear of her beauty as well as her virtues. The adjective “fair” and the use of the comparative form “fairer” in the same line gives the impression that she is stunning. In addition to that, “wondrous” which qualifies her virtues portrays that she is of impeccable character. Bassanio’s speech foregrounds the idea that a woman’s wealth, fairness and virtues are the qualities men looked for in women at the time.
Bassanio then finally formally introduces her to the audience: “Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth”
A modern day audience is able to instantly see clearly that women are assigned second-class status, because Bassanio describes her as though she is defined by her relationship with Cato (in this case her daughter). His reference to her as Brutus’ Portia helps the audience get a feel of what she is really like, as Shakespeare brings the characters of Brutus and Portia from Julius Caesar, which the audience is most likely familiar with.
Portia in Julius Caesar starts out as a devoted wife but as the play progresses shows steadiness as well as masculinity and in fact her character echoes Queen Elizabeth who famously said “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king” – these are qualities Portia exemplifies in The Merchant of Venice as well. “Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth” informs the audience that everybody acknowledges that she is a catch and she is in fact many men’s dream wife, which lays emphasis on her fairness and virtues. In addition to this he says: “Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her”
Here Bassanio uses classical mythology to qualify. In one of the oldest quest stories, Jason led a party of Greek heroes called the Argonatus through many hazards in order to bring back the Golden Fleece from the shores of Colchis on the Black Sea. His intriguing use of metaphors and simile highlights how there are many men after her.
Finally, we meet Portia in the next scene, where her first line is: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of the great world” This echoes Antonio’s opening line of the play, which highlights the point that the world of Belmont – a feminine world- and the world of Venice – a masculine world- are going to be intrinsically linked throughout the play mainly through Portia and Antonio. Portia then informs the audience of the casket test – which is a test her dead father arranged for her husband to be chosen. “I may neither choose who I marry, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.”
Portia reiterates Edwin Sandys’s Sermon Sixteen where he insists that children are to accept the advice of their parents in choosing a spouse and in fact concludes that children who marry without the consent of parents are not sanctioned by God. This causes her to carry on her father’s plan even though he is dead. Shakespeare therefore manages to present her as being a dutiful daughter in addition to being fair and virtuous. In addition to this, Shakespeare portrays Portia as though she is a slave to the casket test because she has no control over whom she marries. This is a conventional portrayal of women and would have been accepted at his time as the thought process of people moved in this direction.
We observe that as Nerissa names Portia’s suitors who appear to be coming from all over the world, Portia’s responses, for example: “I had rather be married to a death’s head with a bone in his mouth than to either of these. God defend me of these.” Gives the impression that amidst being virtuous and dutiful she is also selective dismissive and stereotypical. She echoes the anti-Semitism in Venice (Antonio against the Jew, Shylock) through her reaction upon learning of the arrival of the Prince of Morocco: “…If he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.” Without even meeting him she makes up her mind that she would rather have him for a confessor than a husband because of his skin colour, which she likens to the devil because devils were traditionally black. From this moment on, it is established to the audience that Antonio and Portia are going to be the link between Belmont and Venice.
When Bassanio with his train arrives to take the casket test, we get a love scene, which is arguably the best since Romeo and Juliet. Portia who up until this point has been either warily polite or contemptuously dismissive, now displays a turmoil of emotion as she begs Bassanio to delay his choice: “I pray you tarry, pause a day or two
Before you hazard, for in choosing wrong
I lose your company; therefore forbear a while.”
Shakespeare immediately portrays to the audience that Bassanio is Portia’s desired suitor. Portia changes the rhythm of her speech from prose when she was speaking to Morocco to a softer more poetic verse form. Some may assume that she wants to influence his decision while others may see it as her simply wanting to spend quality time with the man she appears to have fallen in love with before the tension of the casket test takes over. As the scene progresses the we catch a glimpse of a flirty side of Portia, when she says to Bassanio: “Upon the rack Bassanio? Then confess
What treason is mingled with your love.”
Following this, Portia insists on “music” repeatedly in her speech which echoes, “if music be the food of love play on” from the Twelfth Night thus buttressing that she is trying to influence his decision. In the same breath she arguably poetically transforms Bassanio’s choice of the casket: “Go Hercules!”
Hercules, who is a legendary hero, reinforces that she is currently a slave of the casket test and she is imploring him to liberate her from it. At this point, we begin to see Portia attempting to manipulate the situation in order for it to suit her. When Bassanio finally makes the right choice and wins the lottery of the casket test, Shakespeare uses the device of soliloquy: “I feel too much thy blessing: make it less
For I fear I surfeit”
To allow the audience feel her joy. She immediately submits all that she has to Bassanio by referring to him as “Lord Bassanio” which again shows that she is indeed dutiful and subservient. She continues to express her elation and in fact begins to refer to herself in third person: “Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit”
The use of third person distances Portia from the situation and not owning her joy shows that she doesn’t believe how lucky she is and cannot believe the happiness is really hers, which makes the audience able to respond to her ecstasy even more. In addition, the comparative and superlative form of the adjective “happy” compels the audience to feel and in fact share her joy. Furthermore, she continues to surrender everything to him: “Commits itself to yours to be directed
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine, to you and yours
Is now converted. But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s.”
She now begins to refer to him as not just as her lord but now her king and governor and she hands over all her wealth and material possessions to him. She is now subservient to the patriarchal society. Although at the beginning, her vulnerability caused her to want to challenge the patriarchal society and now love makes her accept it.
We then begin to see a Portia of resource and command. As she sends Bassanio quickly to help Antonio: “O love! Dispatch all business and be gone.”
Amidst her resourcefulness, we see her desperation to make him happy. Following this, the first time the audience sees Portia in the masculine world of Venice, disguised as a man in the courtroom scene where she has come to rescue Antonio, after she has been liberated by the casket test. Portia is given the control from the moment of her discreet ceremonial entry into the scene and she manages to retain it till the end of the scene. She shapes the scene into a rhetorical symmetry that would have been evident to an Elizabethan audience. Portia unlike the other Christians refers to Shylock like a human being. She attempts to persuade him by insisting “mercy” is a divine percept of both their religions, when that doesn’t work – she tries to appeal to his financial instincts: “Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond”
She makes it obvious that she is acknowledging the bond but in the same breath takes advantage of his known love for money and implores him to have mercy on Antonio and offers him double the money. Despite this, Shylock refuses again, which she manages to respond: “Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge,
To stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death”
By asking for a doctor to be present she attempts to make Shylock, realise the inhumane nature of his intentions. Portia is steadily offering Shylock every chance to be merciful. Portia, picking up a reverberation from the world of dalliance with her “Tarry a little”, steps back into the world of reckoning and authoritatively changes the whole direction of the trial. Overall, Shakespeare presents her as learned, eloquent and confident which is very different to the way she is portrayed – quiet, obedient and submissive prior to this scene. However, it can be argued that because she did it for Bassanio, she is showing her love, subservient and fully committing herself to him and in fact putting into practice the traditional wedding vows even before they’re married.
In the fifth and final act, she still expands her freedom, as she grows in authority and dignity, fresh touches of humour enlightening her new traits of courteousness showing. Shakespeare presents her as a woman of perfect simplicity, in her tact especially how she keeps her guest Antonio out of the mock quarrel about the rings even though it is more or less his fault. Her final word of the act, which is “faithfully”, is reflective of her character throughout the play.
To conclude, Shakespeare generally presents her in a positive light not only through her character but also through the ways other characters speak of her. For example when Jessica likens her to being “heaven on earth” as well as when Lorenzo likens her to a “god-like amity”. In addition, she is presented as a very interesting and calculating character.
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