The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
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Who is the hero of the play The Merchant of Venice and why?

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Portia is the hero of the The Merchant of Venice. Men create or get themselves into predicaments, but Portia steers them through them successfully.

Her greatest triumph comes when she disguises herself as a male lawyer and is able to save Antonio's life. Antonio has, out of his love for Bassanio, too rashly signed loan papers saying he will give up a pound of his own flesh if he does not repay Shylock's loan within the three-month time limit. When Antonio fails to pay, it is Portia's humane and quick-witted arguments that save him from what most likely would have been a death sentence, given the probable inability of Renaissance medicine to heal his wounds.

Portia also functions as the moral center of the play, as illustrated in her line "the quality of mercy is not strain'd." By this, she means mercy is not overused or overworked in our world, and thus expresses a point of view that says we ought to be more compassionate and merciful towards each other. 

She is a strong woman who can think for herself, successfully impersonate a man, and argue persuasively in court. She also has a sense of humor and a well-developed moral center. Her competence is the glue that brings the play to a successful comic ending, rather than a tragic one.

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Good question! The identity of the title character has been debated for years, and as if that is not enough controversy, the audience has to decide if the hero of the play is even the title character.  Here are several options:

1. Shylock--although the play is a true Shakespearean comedy, some critics have argued that it meets many of the qualifications of a tragedy.  If you think of Merchant as a tragedy, then Shylock is the tragic hero. While Shylock is not respected socially, he is well known as a businessman and experiences a tremendous downfall (he loses his livelihood, his daughter, his pride, and his faith).

2. Antonio--he is an actual merchant because of his venture business and his involvement in trade. The play begins with his moodiness, and Shakespeare never discloses what has caused Antonio to be so melancholy.

3. Portia and Bassanio--together, this couple makes up the hero of the play as a comedy.  All the conflict in the play, including the three plots (the casket, bond, and ring plots) involve Bassanio, and Portia eventually participates in the bond plot when she questions Shylock.  The couple marries in the course of the play and eventually lives happily ever after--a requirement of a Shakespearean comedy.

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