Character of Portia in The Merchant of Venice

Quick-witted, wealthy, and beautiful, Portia is one of Shakespeare’s most adorable heroines. She is gracious and intelligent with an immense power to attract and with high standards for her potential romantic partner. Her goodness and virtue enhance her beauty. Like Antonio, Portia is an example of nobility; but unlike Antonio, she is not passive, but displays energy and determination. It is no surprise that she emerges as the antidote to Shylock’s malice. In many ways, hers is the most forceful figure in the play. The authority and control with which she deals and manipulates the circumstances of the play are exemplary. She uses her wonderful ability with words and her keen sense of humour to enliven the scenes in which she appears, both in Belmont and Venice. Her treatment of her money reflects her belief that money is to be used only in the sense of helping loved ones. Her ideal of mercy is unselfish generosity and she shows an understanding of Christian values.

Her opening appearance proves to be a revealing introduction to Portia, who emerges as that rarest of combinations—a free spirit who abides rigidly by rules. Rather than ignoring the stipulations of her father’s will, she watches a stream of suitors pass her by, happy to see these particular suitors go, but sad that she has no choice in the matter. When Bassanio arrives, however, Portia proves herself to be highly resourceful, begging the man she loves to stay a while before picking a chest, and finding loopholes in the will’s provision that we never thought possible.

Another characteristic that is most readily apparent is her graciousness, tact and sympathy. She shows Morocco, And later to Arragon the honor their rank deserves. But once they are gone, she reveals her true feeling. "A gentle riddance," she says, "O, these deliberate fools!" To her, both of these men are shallow and greedy and self-centered; yet to their faces, she is as ladylike as possible.

In the courtroom, Portia (in disguise) speaks to Shylock about mercy - a genuinely eloquent appeal that comes from her heart. As a Christian gentlewoman, she considers it her duty to show Shylock the foolishness of his exact interpretation of the law that has no mercy. Like Shylock has demanded, she strictly interprets the law and disallows the Jew from taking a drop of Antonio's blood when he takes his pound of flesh. She cites another law that states any alien who tries to take the life of a Venetian is to lose all of his money, which will be split between the state and the person who was to be killed. As a result, Shylock loses all of his wealth. Portia has cleverly tricked Shylock at his own game.

Finally, of course, what we most remember about Portia, after the play is over, is her wit and her playfulness. We recall the humorous way that she imagines dressing like a man and aping their mannerisms. The entire ring plot is Portia's idea. With a fine sense of comedy, Portia plays the role of the "angry wife" just as well as she played the role of the "learned young lawyer" at Antonio's trial.

Some critics, however, are not happy with the portrayal of Portia’s character. Portia subtly manipulates the casket test for her own purposes by playing music when Bassanio makes his choice, they complain. She shows immense injustice and cruelty towards the figure of Shylock and those who are sympathetic with Shylock see her as the epitome of blunt, barbaric, Christian primitivism. Again, though Portia’s empowerment may be a triumph for Elizabethan feminism, in a modern feminist context it falls short. Portia is allowed to be powerful only when she seizes a masculine role that should not be hers.  

Above all, Portia is the most multi-dimensional character in the play, alternating between a beautiful woman in the remote setting of Belmont and the authoritative lawyer in Venice, who orchestrates the victory of good over evil. It is Portia who delivers one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
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.

Last modified: Thursday, 4 June 2020, 8:08 PM