Explain the relationship between Portia and her father in The Merchant of Venice.
The relationship between Portia and her father is an interesting relationship to consider in this play. This is because Portia's father died before the beginning of the play, and she is left to carry out her father's particular instructions regarding whom she should marry and how her future husband will be selected. This is something that she finds very difficult to cope with, as she explains to Nerissa in Act I scene 2 when she talks of how "the will of a living daughter [is] curb'd by the will of a dead father." She is neither able to choose nor to refuse, and she finds this very unjust. However, Nerissa reasons with her and tries to help her see that her father was acting in her best interests:
...the lott'ry that he hath devis'd 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 you shall rightly love.
Nerissa perhaps sees what her mistress is unable to see; that Portia, as a wealthy heiress, will be courted by all sorts of men, both suitable and unsuitable. The test her father devised, out of love for her daughter, will therefore ensure that the person who succeeds in guessing the correct casket will be of a suitable character to marry Portia. This relationship offers an interesting comparison to the relationship between Shylock and Jessica. Portia feels constrained by her relationship with her father, even though it is for her benefit. Arguably, the sense of entrapment Jessica feels is something that is negative, and she elopes to escape her father.
Portia's father has already passed away before the curtain opens on William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, but the provisions of his will continue to impact his daughter's life from beyond the grave. He created a test for any of Portia's would-be suitors whereby they can only marry her if they choose the box containing her picture out of three possible boxes. It is clear that Portia resents that, even though he is gone, her father still has such control over her life and her love life specifically. In Act I, Scene II when Portia is introduced, she has this to say on the matter:
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. Is it not hard,
Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
Portia would much rather be able to elect her future husband herself than leave it up to fate and the test devised by her father.
The relationship between Portia and her dead father is patriarchal, as he exerts control over her life even after his death. Although she is a strong and intelligent woman who can convincingly present herself as a male in the courtroom and win a legal case, she is not allowed to choose her own husband.
The absent father acts a fairytale figure, leaving instructions that her future husband be chosen by means of selecting the correct one of three caskets, a fairytale motif.
Shakespeare can be read as critiquing the notion of patriarchy in this play. Believing a woman like Portia is incapable of making a decent choice of husband by herself is as much a fairytale as the plan her father devises to control her marriage choice.
Portia is not happy with being at the mercy of a seemingly arbitrary game of chance but manages nevertheless to be paired with the right mate.