Portia - Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'

19th century engraving of 'The Merchant of Venice'
19th Century Engraving of The Merchant of Venice.

Getty Images/Andrew Howe)

Portia in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is one of the Bard's most beloved characters.

The Love Test

Portia's fate is determined by the love test her father gives to her suitors. She is unable to choose her own suitor but is forced to marry whoever passes. She has wealth but has no control over her own destiny. When Bassanio passes the test, Portia immediately agrees to divest all her riches, property, and power over to him in order to be his loving and dutiful wife. She is passed from one man’s control—her father’s—to another—her husband’s:

"As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted: but now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself. And even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord’s" (Act 3 Scene 2, 170-176).

One wonders what is in it for her... other than companionship and, hopefully, love? Let’s hope that her father’s test really is foolproof, in that the suitor is proven to love her through his choice. As an audience, we know the lengths to which Bassanio has gone to win her hand, so this gives us hope that Portia will be happy with Bassanio.

"Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchis’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her" (Act 1 Scene 1, 165-172).

Let’s hope Bassanio is not just after her money but, in choosing the lead casket, we are to assume he is not.

Character Revealed

We later discover Portia’s true grit, resourcefulness, intelligence, and wit through her dealings with Shylock in court, and many a modern audience might lament her fate at having to go back to court and be the dutiful wife she promised to be. It is also a pity that her father did not see her true potential in this way and, in doing so, he may not have determined his ‘love test’ necessary but trusted his daughter to make the right choice off her own back.

Portia ensures that Bassanio is made aware of her alter ego; in disguise as the judge, she makes him give her the ring that she has given him. In doing so, she can prove that it was she posing as the judge and that it was she who was able to save his friend’s life and, to and extent, Bassanio's life and reputation. Her position of power and substance in that relationship is therefore established. This sets a precedent for their life together and allows the audience some comfort in thinking that she will maintain some power in that relationship.

Shakespeare and Gender

Portia is the heroine of the piece when all the men in the play have failed, financially, by the law, and by their own vengeful behavior. She swoops in and saves everyone from themselves. However, she is only able to do this by dressing up as a man.

As Portia’s journey demonstrates, Shakespeare recognizes the intellect and abilities that women have but concedes that they can only be demonstrated when on a level playing field with men. Many of Shakespeare’s women show their wit and cunning when they are disguised as men. Rosalind as Ganymede in As You Like It is another example.

As a woman, Portia is submissive and obedient; as the judge and as a man, she demonstrates her intelligence and her brilliance. She is the same person but is empowered by dressing as a man and, in doing so, she hopefully gains the respect and equal footing she deserves in her relationship:

"If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave that ring,
Or your own honour to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring" (Act 5 Scene 1, 199-202).
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Jamieson, Lee. "Portia - Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/portia-shakespeares-merchant-of-venice-2984752. Jamieson, Lee. (2023, April 5). Portia - Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/portia-shakespeares-merchant-of-venice-2984752 Jamieson, Lee. "Portia - Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice'." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/portia-shakespeares-merchant-of-venice-2984752 (accessed June 6, 2023).