Since I touched on the anti-Semitism in my introduction, I thought I would try to take the road less travelled (or at least the road less congested) and discuss Portia. I found Portia to be a striking female character because she exists in this grey area in between being independent and being under the control of the men around her. She has a surprising amount of power for a woman and she is unafraid to wield it, but she is still beholden to the wishes of her father and to a lesser extent her husband. It isn’t until she sheds her femininity that her true intelligence shines. Portia is a Shakespearean heroine that deserves our attention because she literally saves the day.
Portia as an Independent Woman
Portia holds a unique position as a woman in Renaissance society because she is an heiress. She inherited all of her father’s money and property upon his death, making her one of the richest people in the play. This gives her a considerable amount of power, so she is highly desired by multiple suitors. She is very aware that they only seek her for her riches, so she openly laments the way she is to be married. Portia does little to hide the fact that she despises pretty much all of her suitors. The way she dismisses them is reminiscent of Kate from Taming of the Shrew, however Portia is not judged so harshly for this behavior.
Portia is undoubtedly the head of her household and she appears to do it well. Those in her household listen to what she tells them and has managed her father’s money well. So well, in fact, that she is able to offer three to ten times the amount of money Bassiano needs to save Antonio like it’s no big deal. This is the first glimpse we have into her intelligence, but it is the trial that shows how smart she really is. Within hours of hearing about Antonio’s trouble, she devises an entire plot to save him. She sends a message to her uncle to create a cover for her. She comes up with an alibi and more importantly a costume.
Then, she presents the life-saving argument. Portia shuffles through several arguments – appealing for mercy and for greed – before striking gold. Not only that, but she – the woman – restrains her emotions to develop a sound, logical, and more importantly legal argument. By insisting that Shylock can take the flesh, but no blood and must take exactly a pound, she dismantles the bond that not even the Duke could figure a way out of. Then, when Shylock tries to back track she finds a way to ruin him for not seeing the bond through. In the end, she not only saves Antonio’s life, she completely destroys Shylock.
Portia as a Controlled Woman
Portia is by far the most beholden to the will of her father, who is dead. Before his demise he came up with this crazy suitor scheme and put it into his will, so Portia has to follow it. He has devised three riddles on three chests (gold, silver, and lead) for any potential suitors. They have to solve the riddles to choose the correct chest. Portia unwillingly goes along with this plan because it was her father. She refuses to sway the choice in any way, even when she knows that the lead chest is the correct choice and the man she actually loves, Bassiano, is making his choice. She is begrudgingly resigned to giving up her love, or marrying a man she hates simply because her father – again, who is dead – wills it.
While she is only married to Bassiano for a brief time before he takes off to save his man friend, there are some indications that she will be equally obedient to him. Upon him choosing the correct chest, she immediately promises him all that she has. He becomes master of the house, implying that she is now of a lesser position. Though, it could be argued that she still maintains a decent amount of control as Lady of the house. She is also weirdly okay with him completely lying to her about his financial status and his huge debt. She practically just shrugs and hands him a bunch of money to save his friend, who she has never met. It doesn’t exactly paint the picture of a perfect marriage.
Portia as a Man
As with many Shakespearean comedies, we have a woman dressing like a man. This was pretty common because the female characters were played by young men. Anyway, it isn’t until Portia sheds her femininity that she can swoop in and save the day. As discussed briefly above, Portia is the only one in the courtroom that doesn’t allow emotion to cloud her judgement. The Duke, Bassiano, and all his friends plead for the young lawyer to find for their side because Antonio is a good man. Portia won’t do that. She won’t set that precedent in the court of Venice. No one believes her legitimacy until she puts on some pants. It was easier for everyone to believe she was praying for her husband for days.
Portia is the one who uses her minimal power and significant intellect to save the day. Despite being dressed like a man, it was a woman that created a logical argument.