Comment on Portia's verdict in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Portia, a female protagonist of The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, is an example of a strong, powerful female character who uses her intelligence to obtain a desired outcome, rather than simply waiting patiently to be rescued by a hero. She is in love with Bassanio, who wins her hand by successfully solving the riddle of the caskets. Bassanio, however, has borrowed money from Shylock, with a pound of his friend Antonio's flesh as surety. Antonio's money is tied up in cargo and shipwrecks cause him to be unable to repay the money to Shylock. Thus Shylock demands his pound of flesh.

At the trial concerning whether Shylock is justified in demanding a pound of flesh, Portia disguises herself as a doctor of the law and suggests that Shylock is owed a pound of flesh, but no blood, stating:

This bond doth give thee ... “a pound of flesh.” ...

But in the cutting it if thou dost shed

One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

Are by the laws of Venice confiscate.

She also suggests a countersuit of attempted murder against Shylock. Her opinion prevails, and Shylock is deprived of half his fortune, forced to convert to Christianity, and does not obtain his pound of flesh and revenge.

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amarang9's profile pic

amarang9 | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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A disguised Portia begins by asking Shylock to show mercy on Antonio, but she says that the law is the law. Even when Bassanio offers to pay twice or even ten times the amount Shylock is owed, Shylock refuses. Despite his lack of mercy, Portia agrees that the law is untouchable and Shylock rejoices in her assessment: 

A wise young judge! How do I honor thee? (IV.i.227) 

Portia continues to uphold the law, thereby making it appear that she will inevitably side with Shylock. She ends up denying Shylock's claim since he is not allowed to spill any blood when taking the pound of flesh.

Since Shylock denied accepting the money, Portia says he can only attempt the pound of flesh (which is doomed to fail since he cannot spill any blood). She claims that it was Shylock's intent all along to scheme at taking Antonio's life and this is a crime. This may be the case. It was noted that Shylock might have to take his own life and/or surrender all of his wealth. In the end, the verdict is that half of Shylock's wealth goes to the state and the other half goes to Lorenzo and Jessica when he dies. He is also to immediately become a Christian. Shylock consents. The verdict seems fair if in fact Shylock's intent was to kill Antonio. If not the verdict is a bit unfair, especially the bit about forcing him to become a Christian. Portia's reasoning and verdict are logical except on this point. A religious conversion is irrelevant and should not have been part of the verdict. This hints at possibly antisemitism. 

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