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It is often observed that William Shakespeare’s comedies feature some uncomfortable scenes that leave audiences unsure as to whether characters are participating in harmless, theatrical farce or a meaner brand of mockery that borders on the cruel. Such scenes involve trickery that seems funny enough on the surface but, upon closer inspection of the jokester’s motives, can slowly replace a reader’s easy grin with a look of bemusement and concern. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the comedy’s leading lady is no stranger to the kind of jokes that seem to take things too far. During the second half of the play, Portia orchestrates a prank in order to best her future husband Bassanio, to the somewhat troubling effect mentioned above. In Portia’s case, however, the trick was executed not with depraved intentions, but with the goal of asserting dominance over her would-be husband. Although Portia seems to love Bassanio, he presents a threat to both her autonomy and her control over her deceased father’s estate and riches. In order to maintain her power, Portia uses her trick with the ring to position herself above Bassanio, belittling him by questioning and attacking his fidelity, sexual dominance, and masculinity before finally revealing that all was done in jest.
Portia’s first move in her campaign for dominance over Bassanio calls his faithfulness into question. Upon hearing that Bassanio gave his ring to the “civil doctor” who defended the men in their case against Shylock, Portia immediately denounces her future husband, calling his “false heart of truth” as empty as his ring finger (V.1.189). Although the lady then quickly invokes the threat of refusing to lay with Bassanio until the ring is found, it is not until later in her discourse that she fully utilizes sex as a weapon to subjugate her man. Portia first focuses on Bassanio’s lack of fidelity, turning his excuses against him in a mocking parallel form. When Bassanio tries to explain:
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring (193-196).
Portia fires back accordingly, matching each justification with a sharp rebuttal:
If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring (199-202).
Never does Portia even consider Bassanio’s defenses; while she knows they are true, she has chosen to dismiss them in order to break her fiancé down to a more manageable form. She emphasizes the importance of the ring, her own value, and the honor conferred onto Bassanio as the ring’s bearer before stating that he has sullied them all by forfeiting her prized gift to him. Portia makes clear her implication that she must mean nothing to Bassanio if he gave away her ring, a betrayal she claims would not have happened had he “defended it / With any terms of zeal” (203-204). Here irony and condescension drip from Portia’s lines. Finally, Portia begins in earnest to move sex from her cache of ploys to the front lines, claiming that Bassanio must have given the ring to another woman. In painting Bassanio as a faithless lover who committed a serious breach of trust, Portia gets Bassanio on the defensive. Her plan to make Bassanio lose the ring creates a situation where Portia possesses power and the erring fiancé must try to make amends.
Portia, however, will not grant mercy or expose her prank without first thoroughly belittling Bassanio. When he tries once again to convince Portia that he has given her ring to the “worthy doctor” and not another woman, Portia challenges Bassanio’s sexual dominion over her (222). Because he has so carelessly relinquished her ring to the civil doctor, Portia says that she “will become as liberal as” her fiancé with what he owns through the contractual exchange of marriage: her body (226). She promises that she will sleep with this worthy doctor, if given the slightest chance. While Portia lays claim to her sexuality in this scene, she turns it into a kind of commodity, with a price equal to that of the ring Bassanio gave as payment to the doctor. Nonetheless, she does not fail to highlight how this would affect Bassanio. She implies how sleeping with the doctor would emasculate Bassanio and usurp his right to Portia’s body when she says that she will not deny the doctor neither her “body nor [her] husband’s bed” (228). In the patriarchal system in which these characters operate, the wife is seen as the husband’s property. Portia allowing another man into the marital bed would be a blow not only to Bassanio’s masculinity and pride but also to his rightful ownership of the property he came into through the marriage ceremony (Portia). Her entire speech here reads like a challenge, as she taunts Bassanio with promises such as “Know him I shall, I am well sure of it” and warnings like “…watch me like Argus,” a mythical figure with a hundred eyes (229-230). This demonstration of her ability to deflate Bassanio’s power through extra-marital sex is another step in Portia’s scheme to conquer her husband-to-be. Portia has shifted her strategy from focusing on Bassanio’s mistakes and deprecating his character, to fully wielding the power she is gaining over her fiancé.
Ironically, it is in pardoning Bassanio that Portia hurts him most. After endless apologies by Bassanio who promises to never break an oath with his love again, Portia seems to relent. She accepts Bassanio’s regrets and Antonio’s role as surety, before presenting him with the very ring that he had given away. When an astonished Bassanio realizes “it is the same ring [he] gave the doctor,” Portia speaks up, not with the intention of explaining away the confusion, but in order to execute her final act of power (257). In a line that rings of artificial regret and nearly offensive nonchalance, Portia says: “…Pardon me, Bassanio, / For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (258-259). This prank is by far Portia’s cruelest. It is true that the audience knows there is no doctor and that Portia has actually remained faithful to Bassanio, which grants the scene a touch of comedy and dramatic irony. Bassanio, however, is under the impression that the woman he is set to marry has slept with another man. By making it seem like she has made a cuckold of Bassanio in order to get the ring back, Portia succeeds in asserting total dominance over her fiancé. In Shakespeare’s time (and arguably today), having a cheating wife was the ultimate form of emasculation. The nature of a cuckold directs the shame, mockery, and perhaps even the blame to the man in the relationship, as he is supposed to control his wife. Bassanio is furthered belittled through this trick as it implies that if he had not lost the ring to begin with, Portia would not have had to sleep with the doctor. Unfortunately, the audience never gets to hear a reaction from Bassanio, as Gratiano breaks up this power play of humiliation and deceit with the line: “What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserved it?” (265). This remark, which comically indicates that husbands are wont to drive their spouses to infidelity, marks a return to lightheartedness and normalcy. Portia, having fully subdued Bassanio, finally gives up her little prank. She explains how she was the civil doctor all along and, keeping up with her new good-natured persona, tells Antonio the fortunate reports about his ships. Portia’s timely announcement of this good news seems like a strategy to redeem herself to the characters and the audience, a ploy that helps the lot forget about her sadistic trick. Whether Portia reconciles with readers in unknown. Bassanio, on the other hand, makes it clear that all is forgiven, saying: “Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow. / When I am absent then lie with my wife” (284-285). Unbelievably, after being berated for a plan that Portia set up and hearing that his fiancé has slept with another man, Bassanio expresses no grievances.
By the conclusion of Act V, Portia has successfully subjugated her man. The balance of power in the relationship has been determined, with Portia in full control. Through her scheme with the ring, Portia has questioned Bassanio’s fidelity, challenged his sexual dominance, and emasculated him to the point where his volition has been replaced with the sole need to appease his would-be wife. In her manipulative moves, Portia punishes Bassanio for his supposed wrongs before granting him forgiveness for an error she forced upon him. But is it not Portia that is in need of forgiveness? The trick she employs to assert her dominance over Bassanio cannot be written off as a harmless joke. While at times they are somewhat entertaining, her machinations put Bassanio through emotional turmoil and distress that he does not seem to deserve. Portia’s joke is a prime example of purported comedy that is not easily distinguishable from cruel personal attacks.
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