What does the following extract from Act III, Scene 2, of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, tell us about the character of Portia as a daughter and as a lover: "And yet a maiden hath no tongue, but thought, - . . .one half of me is yours, the other half yours . . ."
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In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s is one of the play’s more intellectually clever characters. The beautiful daughter of a now-deceased wealthy, prominent figure from the idealic region of Belmont, she is the recipient of multiple marriage proposals, but is determined to ultimately wed Bassanio – despite the test placed in the way of all potential suitors in terms of her late father’s challenge that the winning suitor correctly choose among three caskets, inside of each is a note. Portia’s love for Bassanio, reciprocated to the extent that the latter’s efforts at winning the former’s hand in marriage precipitates the chain of events that gives The Merchant of Venice its drama and that leads to its climactic scene in court, leads her to extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Her father clearly loved her dearly, as the secret of the three caskets involves an exercise in humility and wisdom intended to ensure that Portia would ultimately end up with the appropriate type of husband. The risk that Bassanio might, however, choose incorrectly among the three caskets leads to the passage below:
“Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong,
I lose your company: therefore forbear awhile.
There’s something tells me, but it is not love,
I would not lose you; and you know yourself,
Hate counsels not in such a quality.
But lest you should not understand me well,—
And yet a maiden hath no tongue but thought,—
I would detain you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you
How to choose right, but I am then forsworn;
So will I never be: so may you miss me;
But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin,
That I had been forsworn.”
Portia wants to slow the process down. She knows this is her only chance at true love, and that the line between success and failure is a thin one. She knows what her father was doing, and wants to ensure that Bassanio understands as well, without divulging the secret and thereby undermining the integrity of the process. From Portia’s actions, we can certainly infer that she was a loving father. Earlier, in Act I, Scene II, Portia and Nerissa discuss the former’s predicament with respect to Portia’s father’s will and the requirement that her husband be the one who chooses correctly among the three caskets. During this discussion, Nerissa explains to Portia the now-deceased patriarch’s intentions:
NERISSA Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men
at their death have good inspirations: therefore the
lottery, that he hath devised in these three chests of
gold, silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning
chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any
rightly but one who shall rightly love. But what warmth
is there in your affection towards any of these princely
suitors that are already come?
That Portia has every intention of honoring her father’s bequest bespeaks to her qualities as a daughter; that she makes every effort imaginable to manipulate the process to her advantage speaks to her qualities as a lover. As she will lovingly commit to Bassanio all her worldly possessions and herself, one can hardly conclude otherwise.
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