(By Anna Jameson, 1832)
ortia, the heroine of "The Merchant of Venice," is one of Shakespeare's most intelligent, resourceful, witty, and talkative female characters. As the heiress of Belmont, she has been left with a great deal of money, yet she still has major issues to deal with. Her late father set out a test for her suitors in order to determine which man is truly worthy to marry her. Although he created the trial with good intentions (having been, as Nerissa states, "ever virtuous"), the bottom line is that Portia has no choice over who her husband will be:
"O, me, the word 'choose'! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father" (I.ii.22-25).
Poor Portia has disliked every suitor who has tried so far, and luckily for her, all have failed. She can only wait and hope that a man she loves will be victorious.
So, here is the test: The suitor is faced with three caskets: Gold, Silver, and Lead. Each is inscribed with a saying. The suitor must choose which casket he thinks contains Portia's portrait. A correct choice means marriage. An incorrect choice means not only leaving Belmont immediately, but also swearing never to marry anyone, ever!! Pretty harsh!
|Now, see how you do! Choose a casket (carefully!):|
"Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire."
"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
"Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."
Well, how did you do? Not so easy, is it?
- And no fair if you knew the answer!
Luckily for Portia, a man she falls in love with, Bassanio, chooses correctly and wins her hand. But then he rushes off to Venice to help his friend Antonio.
So what does Portia do? Does she sit around her mansion waiting for her betrothed to do his business? Does she pine away for him, never leaving her room, never speaking, downing multiple pints of Ben and Jerry's?
Yeah, right! Not Portia. She is quite a piece of work. Not only does she follow Bassanio to Venice, she and Nerissa dress up as men and enter the courtroom. And Portia proceeds to impersonate a lawyer, settle the trial in Antonio's favor, and make a fool out of Shylock, all the while making some of the most eloquent speeches in history! Whatta gal:
"The quality of mercy is not strained. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ...It is enthroned in the hearts of kings; / it is an attribute to God himself; / and earthly power doth then show likest God's / when mercy seasons justice" (IV.i.182-195)
is entitled: "Portia
and Shylock." It is probably a representation of the court scene, even though Portia is
not looking especially manly here. But then again, those were
(Thomas Sully, 1835)
Of course, before we end this discussion, we must mention the ring incident that ends the play. Before Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice, their fiancées give them rings, making them promise never to lose them. While disguised as men in Venice, Portia and Nerissa trick their men into giving the rings to them as a reward for winning the trial. Back in Belmont, Portia and Nerissa give the men crap about giving away the rings:
Portia: "If you had known the virtue of the ring, / or half her worthiness that gave the ring, / or your own honor to contain the ring, / you would not then have parted with the ring" (V.i.199-202).
The women take the joke as far as possible, making their men feel horrible, and then produce the rings, claiming they slept with other men to get them back. Eventually, the truth is revealed, and everyone has a good laugh.
Whether the incident reveals Portia's expansive sense of humor or her immense immaturity is a matter of opinion.
Now you can either go HOME or visit Portia's Links
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Shylock / Bassanio / Antonio / Gratiano & Nerissa / Lorenzo & Jessica / Salerio & Solanio / The Gobbos / The Princes / The Duke / The Servants