The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

Start Free Trial

What was Portia's role in the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice?

Quick answer:

Portia’s role in The Merchant of Venice might be one of subversion. Her transformation into a masterful attorney seems to prove that women can play the roles stereotypically reserved for males. More so, her forceful persecution of Shylock suggests that women shouldn’t automatically be placed in a virtuous role. You could argue Portia’s role shows that women, like men, come with their own individual set of talents, flaws, and prejudices.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Portia was there to defend Antonio against Shylock's claim to a pound of his flesh for forfeiting on a bond which he had signed as a guarantee for the repayment of a loan in the amount of three thousand ducats.

Bassanio, Antonio's closest friend and confidant, had approached the successful merchant for a loan so that he would have enough money to woo the wealthy and beautiful heiress, Portia, who lived in Belmont. Portia's father's will stated that she could only marry a suitor who successfully chose the correct casket from three—gold, silver and lead. Since she was beautiful and the heiress to an immense fortune, Portia had many suitors, themselves men of status and money who came to Belmont to chance their luck. Bassanio wanted to have an equal chance and therefore needed the money, as he tells Antonio in Act 1, scene 2:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,...

And many Jasons come in quest of her.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift,
That I should questionless be fortunate!

Antonio, unfortunately, did not have cash handy and asked Bassanio to approach a moneylender in Venice to grant him a loan. He would do the same. Bassanio found Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, who was prepared to extend the loan if Antonio would sign as guarantor, which the kindhearted Antonio did. The bond specified that the loan of three thousand ducats was to be paid in full in three months. If Antonio should forfeit, Shylock could then claim a pound of his flesh as he makes pertinently clear in Act 1, scene 3:

...If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

At the end of the term, Antonio was struck by misfortune since he lost his fortune at sea and was bankrupt. He was unable to repay the debt and Shylock demanded restitution. It became clear that Shylock had malicious intent. He refused to negotiate any terms and insisted that his claim for a pound of Antonio's flesh be granted. He wanted to avenge the humiliation that he had felt when the Christian merchant publicly criticized him and treated him like a dog. Furthermore, he acknowledged that he found Christians despicable but that he especially hated Antonio.

Bassanio was informed about Antonio's predicament whilst he was in Belmont, ready to become Portia's husband after having chosen the correct casket. When he read the news, he turned pale and Portia asked him what the matter was. She learned about Antonio's position and offered to help by giving her love money to offer Shylock.

Portia also decided to disguise herself as a lawyer and secretly go to Venice with Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, who would be disguised as a clerk. At court, she presented herself, in disguise, as Balthazar sent by an esteemed doctor of laws, Bellario, to defend Antonio. Shylock was unrelenting and insisted on having his way. He demanded to have a pound of Antonio's flesh.

Portia beseeched Shylock to be merciful and accept thrice more than the original loan amount, which he refused. She then referred to the very particular conditions of Venetian law which put Shylock in an extremely difficult position. Shylock could not cut off more or less than an ounce of Antonio's flesh, nor could he spill any of the merchant's blood. Shylock realized that he was in a tight spot and decided to accept terms.

Portia was, however, unforgiving and just as relentless as Shylock had been. She pointed out that any foreigner (which Shylock was) who deliberately intended to harm a Venetian would forfeit all his property to such a person and to the state. Furthermore, the duke could decide if such a person should be executed or not.

Antonio intervened and asked that the proposed sanctions against Shylock be adjusted. In the end, Shylock had to forfeit half his property to his daughter, Jessica, and her Christian husband, Lorenzo, and will the rest to them. They would then be in possession of his entire estate upon his death. More harshly, though, he was to give up his religion and become a Christian.

Portia's intelligent intervention surely saved Antonio's life and guaranteed a life of misery for the pernicious and vengeful Shylock.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

In a sense, you could argue Portia’s role in the play is to subvert stereotypes about women that were present during the sixteenth century and are still present in the twenty-first century.

Now, at first, it might not seem Portia’s role is so subversive. Initially, it seems like Portia’s role is rather typical for a cis woman character. She’s a remarkably attractive person, who, because of her gender, lacks agency. She can’t even choose who she’ll marry (which depends on the sexist assumption that she must marry in the first place).

However, as the play unfolds, Portia’s role expands. She exposes the construct of gender when she dresses up as a lawyer and uses her gift of rhetoric and knowledge of Venetian law to save Antonio. You could claim this scene shows that gender is not a true limitation. The restrictions placed on genders aren’t an inevitable fact of life: they’re a product of sexist societies. You might say that Portia’s new role as a lawyer proves that women can be anything men can be.

Portia’s role might also highlight that notion that women are not always beacons of virtue. Women, like men, can be morally compromised. Yes, Portia does rescue Antonio, but she also appears to punish Shylock in a way that could be described as excessively cruel or even anti-Semitic. She seems to go out of her way to leave him destitute and to compel his conversion to Christianity.

In a way, Portia’s role is twofold. Her character shows that women shouldn’t be held down as romantic objects nor held up as symbols of virtue. Women—like men, like any person of any gender—are complex.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Portia has two roles in this play. The first is to marry, the typical role for a woman in her time period. This role shows just how constricted even a wealthy woman's lot could be. Portia has no choice in who she marries, as her controlling father has set up circumstances so that her future husband must correctly choose one of three caskets in order to win Portia's hand and fortune. She laments, no doubt articulating the woes of many women at the time, "O me, the word 'choose!' I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike."

But Portia is not the stereotypical passive woman, accepting her lot: she knows she wants to marry Bassanio. Therefore, she sets it up so that music plays to convey clues about which box he should pick. 

Portia's other, more unconventional role, is to play a lawyer and defend Antonio. Since a woman wasn't actually allowed to be a lawyer, she disguises herself as a man—and does an admirable job defending her client. Her famous speech, "The quality of mercy is not strained," merges the pathos—the appeal to emotions, to our better instincts—that we associate with the stereotypically feminine and the intelligence we associate with a man. She saves Antonio, and both Antonio and Bassanio end up indebted to her. Could Shakespeare be suggesting through Portia that the constricting roles his society imposed on women don't make sense, and that women are capable of as much intelligence and agency as men?

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Explain the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.

Portia, in Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, pays two very different roles. First, her role is that of a daughter who must live by the vow made to her father regarding her inheritance and her marriage. She is not allowed the rights to her inheritance unless her husband has been able to solve the puzzle of the three boxes. Second, Portia plays Balthazar--a man who appears in court in order to help Antonio (in a case brought forth by Shylock).

Underneath, Portia is a torn woman. Essentially, her feminine emotions allow her to fall immediately for Bassanio. She, therefore, hints at the box he must choose in order to have her hand (and her wealth). On the other hand, Portia's prowess allows her to be very successful in the courtroom. (Something men would not believe a woman capable of). In the end, she seems torn based upon her female emotions and her male ambition.)

Her role, in the end, is one which is meant to highlight both the emotion and cognitive power of a woman. Unfortunately, at this point in time, women were not deemed as highly as men. The fact that Portia, a woman, is able to sway the courts is important.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on