The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Extended Character Analysis

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia is a beautiful, intelligent, and wealthy heiress from Belmont. Her father’s will stipulates that she can only marry the man who manages to solve a riddle involving three caskets made of different metals. The caskets are made of gold, silver, and lead. The person who successfully chooses the casket with Portia’s portrait in it wins her hand in marriage. Due to her wealth and beauty, Portia has many suitors. However, her father’s will has left her powerless to decide which one she weds. Portia resents this, and subtly helps Bassanio, her favored suitor, solve the riddle so that they can marry. Though Portia is constrained by her father’s will and her gender, she does not allow these hindrances to prevent her from manipulating situations in order to achieve her desired outcome.

Portia is one of the most clever heroines in William Shakespeare’s plays. Her cunning and intelligence is most clearly showcased during Antonio’s trial. Posing as a young, male lawyer, Portia successfully defends Antonio from Shylock’s gruesome retribution and saves Antonio’s life. While doing so, she showcases an impressive understanding of Venetian law. As opposed to Bassanio’s call for the rules to be ignored and Antonio’s melancholic resignation to his fate, Portia is able to work within the constraints of the court system to save Antonio’s life. This ability to work within constraints is also present when she helps Bassanio choose the correct casket by having her musicians play a song containing hints in the lyrics. Though still adhering to her father’s will, she subtly manipulates her surroundings to secure her own happiness.

Though Portia’s father’s test is allegedly designed to protect her from unworthy suitors, it actually robs Portia of her agency. By making Portia’s hand in marriage a prize to be won, the courtship test renders Portia an object rather than a person. Rather than needing to win Portia’s affections, her suitors simply need to pass her father’s test. Though Portia does exert control over her future by offering Bassanio hints, it is unclear if she truly loves him or if he is just the best option amongst her suitors. The Merchant of Venice presents love in terms of economics. In Bassanio’s eyes, Portia is a prize to be won so that he can pay off his debts. For Portia, Bassanio may be an investment in her own future. By this reading, Portia and Bassanio’s marriage is not founded on love—at least not initially. Instead, it seems to be based on mutual convenience: Bassanio gains access to Portia’s fortune, and Portia is freed from her father’s will. However, rather than contenting herself with a marriage of convenience, Portia works to win Bassanio’s love as well.

Portia’s efforts to turn Bassanio into a good husband are initially thwarted by Bassanio’s love for his friend Antonio. Antonio’s willingness to take out a dangerous bond has allowed Portia and Bassanio to marry. However, it has also indebted Bassanio to Antonio in such a way that he cannot give all of his love to Portia. After witnessing Bassanio’s declaration that he would sacrifice his marriage for Antonio, the disguised Portia drolly remarks that Bassanio’s wife would not appreciate that. Indeed, though Portia does seem to have some altruistic motivations, her true effort to save Antonio does not come until after Bassanio stakes his life on Antonio’s.

One of the primary motifs in the play is the idea of relationships being transactional and based on debt. Bassanio begins the play deeply indebted to Antonio. If Antonio were to die for Bassanio’s happiness, then Bassanio would never truly be able to pay back that debt. So, Portia leverages the outcome of the trial so that both Bassanio and Antonio are indebted to her instead of each other. Furthermore, through her trick with Bassanio’s wedding ring, she introduces equality into her marriage. After Bassanio successfully completes the casket test, Portia promises herself and all of her belongings to him. However, Bassanio is not asked to do the same for her. In giving away his wedding ring, Bassanio essentially forfeits his bond with Portia. In order to reclaim that bond, Portia forces Bassanio to pledge his soul to her as well. Now, both Bassanio and Portia belong to one another and are mutually indebted. Their marriage is one between equals.

Yet, for all of Portia’s virtues, she exhibits prejudice and hypocrisy while dealing with Morocco and Shylock. She disparages the Prince of Morocco on account of his dark skin and hopes that all men with his “complexion” also choose the wrong casket. She also proves to be just as much of an anti-Semite as Antonio. Though Portia extolls “mercy” as a virtue during the trial, she shows none after gaining the upper hand against Shylock. Bassanio is willing to pay back Shylock’s 3,000 ducats. However, Portia declares that since Shylock initially refused the payment, he gets nothing. Furthermore, even when Shylock is ready to leave without his money or his pound of flesh, she continues to degrade him. Though Shylock is a resident of Venice, Portia uses anti-Semitic rhetoric to paint him as an “alien.” By casting Shylock as an outsider, she robs him of his fortune, his dignity, and his faith.

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