Portia in Merchant of Venice: Character Analysis, Monologue & Quotes
Of all of Shakespeare's woman heroines, Portia , in 'The Merchant of Venice,' is one of the strongest. She knows who she is and what she desires. She also uses her wit and creativity to problem solve, saving the life of her husband, Bassanio's, best friend Antonio.
As The Merchant of Venice opens, Portia's father has passed, leaving her with a stunning inheritance. This beautiful, wealthy bachelorette is now the sought-after prize for many a young suitor. In fact, young, eligible suitors travel from other countries to win her hand in marriage. Portia knows who she loves, a young man named Bassanio. She hopes he will pursue her. However, there is a hitch. Her father has made it mandatory that the suitor who wins her hand pass a test. There are three chests, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Each chest comes with an inscription: The gold box says, 'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.' The silver box says, 'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves', and the lead box says, 'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath' (2.7). Only one chest holds her picture, and if the suitor chooses wisely, he will win her hand in marriage. Portia, on the other hand, struggles with her personal destiny being controlled by her dead father. There is a real possibility that a man Portia doesn't love will chose the right chest, and she will have no say over her personal happiness. Nerissa assures Portia that her father was a good man with her best interests at heart.
Portia explains her dilemma to her maid and confidant, Nerissa, in the following monologue:
'If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree: such a hare is madness the
youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the
cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to
choose me a husband. O me, the word 'choose!' I may
neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I
dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed
by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard,
Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?'(1.1).
Portia notes that knowing the right thing to do and doing it are two different things, and ruefully explains that it is much easier to give advice than to follow it. She further notes that youth don't tend to follow advice. But Portia cannot choose to follow advice. Her deepest frustration is revealed in her inability to choose her suitor due to her father's previously established test. She is at the mercy of the suitor's test.
Portia suffers patiently through many suitors, but the focus of the story comes down to three. First, the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold chest, and it contains a skull with a note telling him that 'All that glitters is not gold '(2.7). He loses. Secondly, there is the Prince of Arragon who chooses the silver chest which contains a picture of a fool. He, too, loses. Then, much to Portia's delight, Bassanio chooses the lead chest, the one that contains her picture. They marry right away, but almost immediately Bassanio finds out that the life of his best friend, Antonio, is in danger.
Portia to the Rescue
Bassanio reveals that a Jewish merchant, Shylock, has loaned him three thousand ducants so that he will have the money he needs to win Portia's heart. This loan is guaranteed by Bassanio's best friend, Antonio. Portia immediately gives her new husband six thousand ducants to more than cover the amount owed to Shylock. However, it isn't until Bassanio arrives home that he realizes Shylock is more interested in revenge--the taking of a pound of Antonio's flesh--than money. (Shylock originally only agreed to lend the money if he were allowed to take a pound of Antonio's flesh if the money was not repaid by a specific date.) Shylock hates Antonio because he refuses to lend money at interest, and this makes Shylock--who charges high interest rates on loans--look bad. There is also racial tension between the two men.
Because Antonio has signed a legal agreement, the situation seems hopeless. With her quick thinking, Portia disguises herself as a judge, Balthasar, and takes command of Antonio's destiny. At first, she agrees with Shylock that he has a legal claim on Antonio's pound of flesh, but then she shrewdly turns the tables on the villain. She tells Shylock that he can only have his pound of flesh if he doesn't shed a single drop of Antonio's blood, because taking Antonio's blood isn't mentioned in the contract. This, of course, is impossible, and Portia saves the day.
When Portia and Bassanio marry, she gives him a ring, making him swear he will never remove it for any reason. Bassanio agrees. But Portia puts his word to the test when she is disguised as the judge Balthasar. 'Balthasar' asks Bassanio for the ring as payment for saving Antonio's life. At first, Bassanio resists this request, but after some pleading from 'Balthasar,' he gives in. Little does he know that Portia is 'Balthasar' in disguise. Portia returns home with the ring ahead of Bassanio, and is intent on testing Bassanio's faithfulness. She is a woman of worth, and she will make sure Bassanio appreciates the heart he has won. She confronts Bassanio, saying:
'You were to blame, I must be plain with you,
To part so slightly with your wife's first gift:
A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.
I gave my love a ring and made him swear
Never to part with it; and here he stands' (5.1).
At first, Bassanio tries to justify his gift of the ring to 'Balthasar,' but ultimately asks forgiveness. Portia reveals that she was Balthasar. Most of all, she lets her husband know that she is a strong, wise woman, someone to be valued, and that he must keep his promises.
Portia is a perfect example of a strong woman. Shakespeare loved to include such women in his plays. Portia's insight into her own frustrating process of dealing with suitors, and her quick thinking in saving Antonio are just two examples of her strength and intelligence. In a time when women were marginalized, Shakespeare was ahead of his time in displaying the worth of a woman in such a a character as Portia.
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