The role of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”

The role of Portia in “The Merchant of Venice”

Portia is one of the main character roles in Shakespeares Merchant of Venice, and is often related to as the heroine of the play. Unlike the business city of Venice, her home is set in the contrasting city of Belmont, which represents love and harmony within the play. We are introduced to Portia in Act1 Scene1, when Bassanio describes her as a fair lady, richly left, but we do not see her until Act1 Scene2. We learn that she has a close relationship with her waiting-woman, Nerissa, and she proves her sharp and witty character when they discuss her many suitors; Ay, thats a colt indeed.

However we also learn that she is racist; let all of his complexion choose.. Although she appears independent, we are told that she is bound by her dead fathers will, which states that any suitor must pick the correct one of three caskets in order to marry Portia, to which she reluctantly obeys; a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. She does however remain devoted to her fathers wishes when she says she will die as chaste as Diana unless she marries a suitor approving of her fathers task.

Despite this, Portia still manages to marry her Bassanio, by hinting to him of the identity of the correct casket. Her song in Act3 Scene2 for instance, rhymes with lead. Although this satisfied both her and her conscience, was she legitimately deceiving her father? Her character seems at first conventional for a wealthy heiress from the Elizabethan era, but her manipulation of the casket test is followed by her visit to Venice to attend the court trial, disguised as a lawyer and accompanied by her clerk (Nerissa).

Shakespeare meant this as a comedy act, as during a Shakespearian performance a male actor would have played Portia dressed as a man, however her disguise also proved Portia as irresponsible and untrustworthy. The ring plot involved Portia deliberately asking for the ring she gave to Bassanio in return for her saving Antonios life, another act of deception. However her trickery is masked by her performance in court, where her witty, intelligent and forceful argument is used to lawfully condemn Shylock and free Antonio.

Although she misleads Shylock into believing he will be rewarded until the last minute, a cruel feat, she may have been doing so in order to give Shylock every opportunity to redraw and show mercy. It is more likely however that Shakespeare did this to cause suspense and tension in the scene. In the end she points out that the bond does not include blood in the terms, and so Shylock cannot receive his pound of flesh, she then accuses Shylock of attempting to kill a Venecian, and he is sentenced to converting to Christianity and to leaving his fortune to Jessica and Lorenzo.

After the trial, back in Belmont, Portia continues to deceive Bassanio, and on revealing her possession of the ring, claims to have slept with the lawyer, which appears almost cruel, but the traditionally comic Shakespearean ending ensures that the matter is resolved and the couple remain happy. Portia announces to Antonio that his ships have miraculously returned, and yet again becomes the heroine. However she receives the letter under suspicious circumstances; You shall not know by what strange accident I chanced on this letter.

This quote indicates that Portia knew of this letter beforehand, yet she chose not to reveal it and to let the trial commence even though the letter could have prevented it. Her disguise as the lawyer was so successful that it is possible she could have planned her actions in advance, indicating that she engineered the trial to deliberately prove herself as the heroine. Manipulative or not, the audience still admire her, for her self-determination, her intelligence, and her spirited nature, and she still remains the heroine of the Merchant of Venice.

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