When you think of Portia in, “The Merchant of Venice”, you would probably think of her to be a polished young woman that lived in a secluded mansion away from the impoverished citizens of Venice. These ideas may hold some truth to it but they do not fully represent who Portia is as a supporting character. When you really analyze the characterization of Portia, you can begin to see that she is a lot more than a one dimensional character. Examples that point to this claim is the scene with the suitors and the three caskets, the courtroom scene, and her willingness to help Bassanio in his times of need.
Bassanio had set his eyes on Portia before she decided to put together her test of the three caskets. Whichever suitor chose the casket that had a portrait of her inside, that person would be suited to be her husband. With this test, Portia was able to observe and judge the suitors’ nobility. Although, when you think about it, her test could have gone incredibly wrong if Morocco or Aragon chose the casket with her portrait in it. She trusted Bassanio with her future marriage with the casket test. Given the historical elements of the play, the story of the three caskets is not a common rite of passage for suitors to be wed with their spouses. However, Portia is put into a different position. The wealth she possesses is sacred and the test of the three caskets (at least to her) was one of the best tools to sort out her future spouse that would honor her and their marriage.
Act II, Scene 7
Portia : Go, draw aside the curtains and discover the several caskets to this noble prince. – Now make your choice.
Morocco : This first of gold, who this inscription bears : “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The second, silver, which this premise carries : “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt : “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” How shall I know if I do choose the right?
Portia : The one of them contains my picture, Prince. If you choose that, then I am with yours withal. (Pg. 300-301, lines 1-12)
Portia could have easily set her mind on only Bassanio instead of inviting two strangers to take part in a challenge that she devised. She knew her worth and knew that many men were willing to fight for her hand in marriage (as well as her wealth).
In Act IV, Portia truly shines as the deal breaker and the communicator to persuade Shylock to change his verdict on Antonio’s punishment. The courtroom scene is the probably the best scene in the entire play that really highlights how multi-faceted Portia is. She disguised herself as Balthazar in order to have a say and persuade the court. One of the main reasons why she disguised herself as a man was to help her husband. Portia truly sympathized with Bassanio and saw how beside himself he was about the situation between him, Shylock, and Antonio. This is quite telling of Portia’s character. She is not a ‘damsel in distress’ by any means and is very capable.
Act IV, Scene 1
Portia : Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh. Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more but just a pound of flesh. If thou tak’st more or less than a just pound, be it but so much as makes it light or heavy in the substance or the division of the twentieth part of one poor scruple – nay, if the scale do turn but in the estimation of a hair – thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate. (Pg. 325, l. 322-330)
Shylock : Shall I not have barely my principal?
Portia : Thou shalt have nothing but the forfeiture to be so taken at thy peril, Jew.
Shylock : Why, then, the devil give him good of it! I’ll stay no longer question.
Portia : Tarry, Jew- the law hatch yet another hold on you. It is enacted in the laws of Venice if it be proved against an alien that by direct or indirect attempts he seek the life of any citizen, the party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive shall seize one half of his goods; the other half comes to the privy coffer of the state; and the offender’s life lies in the mercy of the Duke only, ‘gainst all other voice. In which predicament I say thou stand’st: For it appears by manifest proceeding that indirectly, and directly too, thou hast contrived against the very life of the defendant; and thou hast incurred the danger formerly by me rehearsed. Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke. (Pg. 326, l. 340-361)
If it was not for Portia, Antonio might have faced his in-humane punishment. Cross-dressing as a man to be a in courtroom full of men in order to save your husband’s friend’s skin takes a lot of bravery. The final verdict was not ideal for all the people involved but at least the Christians won, right?
When Portia and Bassanio are wed, Bassanio receives a letter from Antonio detailing his unfortunate circumstance, Bassanio feels guilty because he involved Antonio in a deal that was supposed to benefit him. Not to mention Bassanio is broke and has nothing to his name. His newly wedded wife, Portia, realizes the state of distress Bassanio is in and asks what can be done about his friend. This example shows Portia’s devotion to her husband. Portia did not have a full grasp of the critical situation but she was ready to step in.
Bassanio : O sweet Portia, here are a few of the unpleasant’st words that ever blotted paper…
Bassanio (cont.) : When I told you my state was nothing, I should then have told that I was worse than nothing; for indeed I have engaged my friend to his mere enemy, to feed my means. Here is a letter, lady, the paper as the body of my friend, and every word in it a gaping wound issuing lifeblood. (Act III, l. 248-250, l. 256-264)
Bassanio is ‘high-maintenance’ in case you could not tell already. Trying to live a life for the rich when he cannot afford and has to rely on other people for funds.
In conclusion, Portia as a supporting character is quite under appreciated and much more honorable than her husband. She does not fit the mold of the helpless princess and instead beats that label/stereotype that is taken at a first glance.
Courtoom photo :
Hill, Thomas. “The Trial Scene from the Merchant of Venice , 1865.” Artnet.com, http://www.artnet.com/artists/thomas-hill/the-trial-scene-from-the-merchant-of-venice-LcXeIhi51kt0Ds9Dq_sMgw2.
Portia and Bassanio photo :
Gray, Henry Peters. “Portia and Bassanio- from The Merchant .” Photos.com by Getty Images, 22 Jan. 2019, https://photos.com/featured/portia-and-bassanio-from-the-merchant-the-new-york-historical-society.html. Accessed 3 Nov. 2021.
Shakespeare, William, et al. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare: Essential Plays, the Sonnets, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2016, pp. 269–335.