Why is Portia regarded as the hero of the play The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare?

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In the The Merchant of Venice, a contractual agreement takes center stage in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock loaned 3,000 ducats to Bassanio for him to use as his suitor expenditures for Portia. Bassanio does not have enough money to enter the loan, so he convinces Antonio, a wealthy merchant, serve as the loan’s guarantor.

If Antonio is not able to repay the 3,000 ducats, Shylock will remove a pound of Antonio’s flesh. There is no interest associated with this loan, and Shylock enters in the agreement because Antonio has abused Shylock previously, and the chance of enacting physical pain and death upon Antonio is too tempting for Shylock to pass up.

Antonio’s ships are reported lost at sea, so he is unable to repay the loan, which results in a trial. It’s important to note that Shylocks and Antonio’s rivalry is high religious in nature and depicts the often-contentious nature of this time between Christians and Jews.

In the trial, Portia arrives disguised as Balthazar, supposedly a young male doctor. Portia argues that the collateral of a pound of flesh does not include blood, so if Shylock draws blood or removes any weight of flesh other than exactly a pound, his property will be forfeited due to harm enacted upon a Venetian by an alien. Portia also argues that since Shylock refused money offers by Bassanio in open court for the express purposing of killing a Venetian, that law still applies to Shylock and eventually the Duke spares Shylock’s life but redistributes his property.

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Portia is portrayed as the hero of the play for saving Antonio's life when she disguises herself as Balthazar and influences the court's decision to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio. Portia initially demonstrates her gracious nature by immediately offering to pay Shylock twenty times what Antonio owes Shylock in order to prevent him from exacting the pound of flesh. Portia then travels to Venice and disguises herself as a young lawyer who has been briefed by Doctor Bellario. In court, Portia pleads with Shylock to show mercy on Antonio. When Shylock refuses to accept three times what Antonio's debt is worth, Portia finds a legal loophole that saves Antonio's life. Portia reasons that Shylock is entitled to his bond of a pound of flesh, but concludes that nothing was said about blood in the bond. This predicament makes it impossible for Shylock to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio, which saves his life. She then uses the law against Shylock to alter the situation by declaring that the Duke has the right to take Shylock's life because he intended to kill a Venetian citizen. Without Portia's intervention, Antonio would have surely died at Shylock's hand.

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Portia is often seen as the hero of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice for several reasons. First, she offers to cover Antonio's debt to Shylock with her considerable funds. When Shylock refuses, Portia disguises herself as a lawyer and outsmarts Shylock in court, forcing him to abandon his claim to a pound of Antonio's flesh and to give up a considerable sum of money in the process. In many respects, Portia saves the day single-handedly. 

If one is to regard Portia as a hero, however, it's important to see the potential drawbacks to her character. While Shylock's intention to extract his pound of flesh from Antonio is undeniably cruel, it's hard not to empathize with him, as he endures a substantial barrage of anti-Semitism from Antonio and others throughout the play. Thus, when Portia humiliates Shylock in court, it's hard to see her actions as entirely "heroic," and it's particularly troubling that she shows little mercy to Shylock directly after giving a truly profound speech on the benefits of mercy.

That's not to say that Portia is not heroic at all. Rather, it's simply important to take her heroism with a grain of salt, as her many virtuous qualities come along with some suggested prejudices that are uncomfortable and troubling. 

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