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The Construction of Portia's Character

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In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare crafts a dynamic female character uncommon to his collection of plays. Portia, the lovely and wealthy heiress, exemplifies stereotypical feminine qualities but also exhibits independent and intelligent thought. Most of Shakespeare’s female roles function as static characters designed to further the plot action; they are elements of the backdrop against which the male protagonist and antagonist act. In fact, in Shakespearian drama, any strong female character generally exhibits masculine qualities. Thus Portia acts as an exception to the norm. Her command of logic is as stunning as her beauty, and this depth of character has placed Portia at the center of much literary analysis. Portia typifies the ideal, well-rounded woman.

Many aspects of Portia’s character reflect the view of Shakespeare’s contemporaries that a woman ought to be obedient and humble. Even though her father is deceased, Portia commits herself to obeying his final command. She will not choose a husband for herself; instead, potential suitors must enter a lottery designed by her late father. Each man must select one of three caskets, and the bachelor who opens the casket containing Portia’s portrait earns her hand in marriage. Portia bemoans her inability to decide her own fate, but follows her father’s procedure, declaring, “If I live as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste / as Diana unless I be obtained by the manner of / my father’s will” (1.2.116-118). She also shows great humility before her potential husbands. When explaining the pledge each suitor must take, Portia comments, “To these injunctions every one doth swear / That comes to hazard for my worthless self” (2.9.17-18). When the lottery finally produces Bassanio as Portia’s husband, she submits herself to him completely, pledging, “[… B]ut now, / This house, these servants, and this same myself / Are yours, my lord’s […]” (3.2.171-173). Portia exhibits the qualities of the submissive, humble woman that Shakespeare’s society expected in the perfect female.

This dynamic female character also exemplifies the stereotypical heiress; only her beauty matches her immense riches. The extensive parade of suitors seeking Portia as a wife shows her high desirability. As Bassanio informs Antonio, “In Belmont is a lady richly left; / And she is fair, and fairer than that word” (1.1.161-162). He continues, “[… H]er sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, / […] And many Jasons come in quest of her” (1.1.170-172). Bassanio’s speeches on Portia’s beauty are extensive. When he encounters her portrait within the lead casket, he exclaims, “[…] What demi-god / Hath come so near creation?” (3.2.116-117). Shakespeare paints Portia as this demi-god, idealized and widely sought by eligible princes and wealthy suitors.

These feminine qualities are typical of Shakespeare’s female characters; thus, Portia’s distinctiveness lies in her depth. Not only does Portia illustrate clichéd female attributes, but she also possesses a keen sense of logic. This intelligence shines at Antonio’s trial when she impersonates the Doctor. Portia first attempts to utilize her command of language and persuasion to convince Shylock to exercise mercy. She professes, “The quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed- / It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes” (4.1.184-187). Shylock refuses to relent, however, and Portia uses his own pleas for justice against him. Shylock exclaims, “[…] I crave the law […]” (4.1.206), and Portia delivers just that. She examines the bond and declares, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood, / The words expressly are a pound of flesh. / Take then they bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, / But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed / One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods / Are by the laws of Venice confiscate […]” (4.1.306-311). Portia wields the letter of the law further, observing that Shylock intends to murder Antonio and should be punished accordingly. Portia secures half of the Jew’s money for the state and the other half for Jessica and Lorenzo upon the father’s death. Finally, as a joke meant to chide her husband for the cavalier attitude he expresses towards his wife at the trial, she cunningly convinces Bassanio to give her his wedding ring. Once all of the characters have returned to Portia’s estate, Portia uses her sharp wit to tease Bassanio before finally revealing the truth to him and returning the ring. Portia’s entire scheme- from disguising herself to winning Antonio’s freedom to tricking Bassanio and taking his ring- reflects her sharp wit and intellect. These final personality traits create a dynamic, rounded character in Portia.

Shakespeare’s treatment of Portia is unique. As the plot progresses, her character gains more depth and becomes increasingly dynamic. At the beginning of the play Portia is merely an object Bassanio pursues, but by the end of the comedy her character plays a major role in the trial and ring episode. Thus, her character begins as an element of the plot and finishes as a driving force behind the plot. In Portia, Shakespeare creates a woman who demonstrates both conventional feminine traits and a strong intellect not typical in most female characters of the time. Her obedience and humility are juxtaposed against her independence and cleverness; Portia thus represents the perfect balance between the submissive and the strong woman. Her obedience, her wealth, her beauty, and her wit all form the idyllic female.

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GradesFixer. (2018). The Construction of Portia’s Character. Retrived from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/shakespeares-portia/
GradesFixer. "The Construction of Portia’s Character." GradesFixer, 14 Jun. 2018, https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/shakespeares-portia/
GradesFixer, 2018. The Construction of Portia’s Character. [online] Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/shakespeares-portia/> [Accessed 9 August 2020].
GradesFixer. The Construction of Portia’s Character [Internet]. GradesFixer; 2018 [cited 2018 Jun 14]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/shakespeares-portia/
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