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Literary analysis with feminist critique of Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice.” Written for an English class in Spring 2016. Edited slightly in 2021. 

// I wrote some code to analyze Shakespeare’s plays and found out that 22% of the lines in “The Merchant of Venice” are Portia’s, and 1.03% of the lines in all of Shakespeare’s 38 plays are Portia’s!

Willful Portia

Portia is the most dynamic, complex character in William Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice.” Strong, brilliant, and oh-so willful, she embodies the ultimate feminist fantasy, going as far as to impersonate her very oppressors to assert her dominance (1). Of course, some analyses of Portia reveal a racist, anti-Semitic, spoiled brat known for her keen manipulation and general sleaziness. However, through a lens that acknowledges the sexism and gender roles of the time period and with a deliberate effort to empower her, Portia emerges as a heroine, repeatedly besting the men in the play and demonstrating astounding resilience, genius, and compassion.

On Portia’s wealth, privilege, and power

Although she is very rich, Portia almost never talks about her wealth. In fact, Bassanio’s famous comment in the opening scene is one of the only indications that she is rich at all. He says:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: …
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia:
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth (1.1.168-174)

Here he not only revels the extent of her worth, but also provides insight as to how he and other men see and call women.

Throughout the play, other characters also use her wealth as a qualifier, while Portia only brings up her inheritance in the context of her father’s will. When Bassanio tells her about Antonio and the bond, she jumps to the rescue, exclaiming of the three thousand ducat bond:

What, no more?
Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair through Bassanio’s fault. (3.2.311-315)

Portia’s comment is not a bragging one, but instead an example of her personal values. Such incredible shows of loyalty and compassion are rare in “The Merchant of Venice.” Portia is aware of her privilege, but she does not show it off.

In fact, she consistently uses her wealth and influence for good. She is always incredibly welcoming to all of her guests, albeit sometimes reluctantly when they are seeking her hand in marriage. In a conversation with Lorenzo and Jessica, Portia says:

How little is the cost I have bestow’d
In purchasing the semblance of my soul
From out the state of hellish cruelty!
This comes too near the praising of myself;
Therefore no more of it: hear other things. (3.4.19-23)

In this comment, Portia is speaking about the money she sent with Bassanio to save Antonio. Thus, she is humble when speaking of both her literal richness and her richness of spirit and ethics. Additionally, the people that work at house in Belmont are very loyal to her, unlike, for instance, Shylock’s servant Lancelet. Many times her plans to go to court as “Balthazar” could have been thwarted by an angry handmaiden or cook, and yet everyone in her household helps and protects her all the time. This respect cannot be bought and must have been earned over the course of many years. Portia’s wealth has likely been one of the greatest sources of privilege and power in her life. Yet she is not consumed by it or appeased by it, and instead uses it to empower herself and others.

Suitors and marriage: What Portia stands to lose

At the start of the play, Portia is being courted. In conversations with her handmaiden Nerissa, she refers to the institution of marriage, citing how it, in several ways, is restricting and unfair to women. Her father’s will also forces her to grapple with the fact that she has few legal rights. Furthermore, once married, the ownership of her estate and her body will be transferred to her husband. This makes her critical of the bizarre suitor-selection process, and rightfully so.

When she is discussing her suitors, which she only does after Nerissa prompts her to, Portia goes through all of them, pointing out their faults and shortcomings. She is not doing this out of spite, however, but out of necessity, since the man that by chance (or not) chooses the right chest will essentially own her. With this understanding in mind, “the German,” who is, “Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and / most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk,” for instance, can be seen a potentially abusive partner, giving Portia great reason to not want to marry him (1.2.86-87). Her horror at the fact that the “baron of England” does not speak Italian or Latin also makes sense, since this extreme language barrier might prove divisive and stressful to any couple.

By marrying, she also stands to lose her money, her land, and her agency. With this in mind, her comment, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as / chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner / of my father’s will,” takes on a more solemn note, almost as if she is hoping to remain chaste and unmarried for as long as possible (1.2.106-108). Similarly understood, her many pleadings to God appear less casual and more desperate. After speaking of the first two suitors, she exclaims, “God defend me from these / two!” (1.2.52-3). This cry highlights the fact that there really is no one standing up for her but herself, and that she may need protection. A few lines later, she says of the suitors, “I pray God grant / them a fair departure!” (1.2.110-111). Since she cannot do this herself—get rid of the suitors or the will— she calls to God. With this understanding of Portia’s situation at the start of the play, Bassanio appears less like the love of her life and more as simply the best, safest option for a woman in her position.

Thus, the entire courtship process must be examined carefully. For instance, after the Prince of Morocco leaves, Portia exclaims, “A gentle riddance. Draw the curtains, go. / Let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.86-87). Although Portia is  referencing the prince’s skin, her treatment of him is otherwise the same compared to how she treats her other suitors. She is courteous and hospitable to the suitors, but when they leave, she often expresses her frustration and relief. This courtship process is undoubtedly long and stressful, and yet she handles it with great grace and patience. Thus, when Bassanio chooses the right chest, she is probably content.

Why Portia marries Bassanio

Bassanio is far from the perfect suitor. Portia has to cheat to help him, and he consistently fails to be a loyal husband. Even before the massive ring failure–in which he gives away a ring he promised he would wear forever–Bassanio tells Antonio in open court, with “Balthazar” right next to him:

I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life:
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you. (4.1.294-299)

Portia and Bassanio both lie and scheme. However, Portia does so to gain agency. On the other hand, Bassanio’s clear defamation and consistent disregard for his marriage to Portia stems from his love of Antonio, whom he prioritizes over his new wife. Bassanio’s betrayal is thus more incriminating. At the end of the play, Portia acts as though she is being merciful when she forgives Bassanio. But, in fact, she doesn’t really have a choice. Even if her servants were to stand up for her, legally she does not have the option to leave Bassanio and take her belongings with her. Thus her acclaimed, order-restoring last stance in the final scene can be read as one last act of defiance and single-hood.

Portia applies her intelligence and compassion to law

Despite her being a woman, Portia is extremely intelligent and insightful. Not only does she understand and know Venetian law to the point where she can expertly interpret and apply it, but she also truly sees how it applies to women and other minorities. She explains her situation to Nerissa, saying:

… I may
neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I
dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed
by the will of a dead father. (1.2.22-25)

Portia understands the complexities of her position and society, specifically her lack of agency. It’s this kind of “double consciousness” that fuels her compassion and helps her use the law as a weapon, in the way it has always been used against her (2).

Others might not have considered all the facets of the legal system that systemically suppress and oppress different groups including women. But Portia can, to some extent, empathize with Shylock. This allows her to better deconstruct his legal argument. When he brings up the notion of slavery, she may have drawn parallels between the experiences of slaves and wives, informing her rebuttal. While she mostly refers to Shylock as “the Jew,” she does call him by name twice. Given her precarious position impersonating a man, however, it is understandable that she would not wish to draw attention to her possible lesser feelings of anti-semitism compared to others in the court. This fear of being discovered might have also motivated her to force Shylock to beg for mercy, a demand which seems otherwise out of place in her righteous rhetoric.

“Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?”

While at the end of the play Shylock is arguably obliterated, this is not directly Portia’s fault since she consistently follows the letter of the law and asks for mercy on his behalf—from the duke and from Antonio. Given Portia’s ability to interpret and apply the law, she could theoretically have had Shylock killed or punished in a crueler way. But she did not. Finally, her first question when she enters the courtroom is possibly the most important line of the entire play: “Which is the merchant here, and which is the Jew?” (4.1.176). This question illuminates the arbitrariness and injustices abundant in the law. Given her knowledge of the court system, it is unlikely that she really needed someone to point out who was the defendant and who was the prosecutor, as the two would be positioned at different ends of the room. Therefore, as with everything else she says, Portia must have perfectly calculated this line, unknowingly forcing the court—and readers/the play’s audience—to consider how Shylock and Antonio are alike.

Conclusion

Portia is a fascinating character. When Lorenzo asks Jessica if she likes Portia, she replies:

Past all expressing. It is very meet.
The Lord Bassanio live an upright life;
For, having such a blessing in his lady,
He finds the joys of heaven here on earth;
And if on earth he do not mean it, then
In reason he should never come to heaven
Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match
And on the wager lay two earthly women,
And Portia one, there must be something else
Pawn’d with the other, for the poor rude world
Hath not her fellow. (3.5.72-82)

This beautiful description captures what cannot be captured or constricted in Portia: her willfulness. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Portia forces the modern audience to confront historical gender roles, many which are still present today, while repeatedly vanquishing stereotypes and glass ceilings. In several ways, Portia is revolutionary and something of a super-hero. Though she does not get as much speaking time as many of the other male characters, she shines through. When analyzed taking all of this into account, it is clear that Portia empowers not only herself but also all womankind.

Endnotes

1 “Willful women” is a concept we discussed and learned about in my other English elective, A Room of Their Own: Women’s Studies and Literature, with Ms. Emma Staffaroni.

2 “Double consciousness” is another concept we learned about in A Room of Their Own. This concept was originally introduced by W.E.B. Du Bois.

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