Is Portia the real hero of The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In many ways, Portia is indeed the real hero of The Merchant of Venice. In spite of the fact that she's a woman, she claims more agency than almost any other character in the play. She initially laments her fate as a woman without choice: “O me, the word 'choose!' I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike.” Her now deceased father has set up a system to select Portia’s husband. She has no power to select or turn down the man who passes her father’s test. Even after death, Portia’s life is ruled by patriarchy--one that she chooses to honor.

Fortunately, Portia’s love, Bassanio, passes the test and wins her hand. She asserts that she will submit herself to him as her lord: “Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit / Commits itself to yours to be directed, / As from her lord, her governor, her king.” However, she is hardly a submissive character. Portia in fact exercises more agency and demonstrates more wit than the male Bassanio. She also supports him financially. When his friend Antonio is in trouble, she offers to give thousands of ducats to save him.

Portia’s heroism is on full display during the trial. She disguises herself as a male lawyer and single-handedly delivers Antonio from death. Portia uses logic and the law to defeat Shylock in court. Not a single man there was able to think of a legal way to save Antonio’s life. The duke, Bassanio, and Antonio do nothing but plead for mercy. Portia at first follows this trend, delivering beautiful speeches on mercy and justice. When that fails, she points out that Shylock cannot exactly fulfill his bond without breaking it and that Shylock is breaking the law by conspiring to kill a Venetian citizen.

Portia is the one who saves the day. She retains the upper hand in her relationships, in spite of her initially subservient position as a woman. Portia even tricks Bassanio at the end of the play in order to test his loyalty. It is certainly reasonable to call Portia the play’s hero.