The Merchant of Venice

by: William Shakespeare

Portia

God made him and therefore let him pass for a man. In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker, but he!—why, he hath a horse better than the Neapolitan’s, a better bad habit of frowning than the Count Palatine. He is every man in no man. If a throstle sing, he falls straight a-capering. He will fence with his own shadow. If I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands. If he would despise me I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness I shall never requite him. (A I, sii)

Portia gives Nerissa her opinion of potential suitors and reveals she has an astute eye for character. Here she draws critical comparisons between a prince, a count, and a lord. Her views of the different suitors highlight that wealth or status mean little to Portia. She seems more focused on personality and appearance.

In terms of choice I am not solely led By nice direction of a maiden’s eyes. Besides, the lottery of my destiny Bars me the right of voluntary choosing. But if my father had not scanted me And hedged me by his wit to yield myself His wife who wins me by that means I told you, Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair As any comer I have looked on yet For my affection. (A II, s i)

Portia responds to the Prince of Morocco’s pleas to give him a chance as a suitor despite his skin color. She explains that appearance is not the only way to her heart, but that her father took away her free choice regarding her future husband. Portia’s character exposes gender roles in this Venetian society in her clever exposition of society’s rules, while giving the impression of a woman who does not shy away from breaking from these rules.

All the world desires her. From the four corners of the earth they come To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint. The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds Of wide Arabia are as thoroughfares now For princes to come view fair Portia. The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar To stop the foreign spirits, but they come As o'er a brook to see fair Portia. (A II, s vi)

The Prince of Morocco thinks aloud as he tries to decide which box to open in order to win Portia’s hand in marriage. As he reads the sayings on each box, he talks through his decision. In doing so, he describes Portia and the way so many view her as desirable, saintly, fair, and worth sacrificing for.

Before you venture for me. I could teach you How to choose right, but I am then forsworn. So will I never be. So may you miss me. But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin, That I had been forsworn. (A III, s ii)

After Bassanio arrives to choose a box, Portia speaks to him regarding the process and his coming decision. She requests he wait to choose, revealing her genuine desire to be with him longer. She explains how she could reveal the correct box but doing so would violate the promise she made to her father. Clearly, Portia struggles with this decision, but she shows her honorable character by not backing out on an oath.

Beshrew your eyes, They have o'erlooked me and divided me. One half of me is yours, the other half yours— Mine own, I would say. But if mine, then yours, And so all yours. Oh, these naughty times Put bars between the owners and their rights! And so, though yours, not yours. Prove it so. Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I. (A III, s ii)

Portia explains to Bassanio that she already feels strongly connected to him. She reveals that she already feels like part of her is with him and that she fears losing him. Through this revelation, Portia shows her character as a woman who knows what she wants and honestly declares her feelings.

Now he goes With no less presence but with much more love Than young Alcides, when he did redeem The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy To the sea monster. I stand for sacrifice. The rest aloof are the Dardanian wives, With blearèd visages come forth to view The issue of th' exploit.—Go, Hercules! Live thou, I live. With much, much more dismay I view the fight than thou that makest the fray. (A III, s ii)

Portia describes her feelings as Bassanio goes to choose the box that will reveal if he can marry Portia. She alludes to the story of the hero Hercules going to save the princess Hesione from being a human sacrifice, with Bassanio representing Hercules and she Hesione. The dramatic allusion conveys the intense anxiety Portia feels about whether Bassanio will choose correctly. Portia envisions the world stopping to view her rescue, and the audience recognizes themselves in her metaphor as they watch in suspense to see her hopes fulfilled: her love for Bassanio consummated in marriage.

How all the other passions fleet to air, As doubtful thoughts, and rash-embraced despair, And shuddering fear, and green-eyed jealousy! O love, be moderate. Allay thy ecstasy. In measure rein thy joy. Scant this excess. I feel too much thy blessing. Make it less, For fear I surfeit. (A III, s ii)

Just before Bassanio opens the lead box that he has chosen in hopes of marrying Portia, she expresses her emotions to the audience. Knowing that he chooses correctly, she describes the relief from her anxious ordeal. She feels overwhelmed by her love for Bassanio to the point that she worries if she can control her feelings. For the first time, Portia reveals an emotional vulnerability that the audience had yet to see from this highly rational and disciplined character.

Though for myself alone I would not be ambitious in my wish To wish myself much better, yet for you I would be trebled twenty times myself— . . . That only to stand high in your account I might in virtue, beauties, livings, friends Exceed account. But the full sum of me Is sum of something which, to term in gross, Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticèd; Happy in this—she is not yet so old But she may learn. Happier than this— She is not bred so dull but she can learn. Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit Commits itself to yours to be directed As from her lord, her governor, her king. Myself and what is mine to you and yours Is now converted. (A III, s ii)

After Bassanio picks the correct box, Portia responds to his outpouring of loving accolades by explaining that she wishes she were more worthy of his love. Despite being a rich heiress courted by royalty from around the world, Portia expresses her desire to improve and learn. This resolution to mold herself to Bassanio’s needs speaks to Portia’s humility but also to the role of women in this society.

Double six thousand, and then treble that, Before a friend of this description Shall lose a hair through Bassanio’s fault. First go with me to church and call me wife, And then away to Venice to your friend. For never shall you lie by Portia’s side With an unquiet soul. (A III, s ii)

Portia demonstrates her selfless and giving nature as she urges Bassanio to quickly marry her so he may go to help his friend, Antonio. She also offers him whatever gold and money he needs to pay off Antonio’s debts in order to save Antonio’s life. As a wise and generous woman, Portia recognizes that Bassanio could never live at peace knowing that his friend died because of his debts.

Past all expressing. It is very meet The Lord Bassanio live an upright life, For having such a blessing in his lady, He finds the joys of heaven here on earth. And if on earth he do not merit it, In reason he should never come to heaven. Why, if two gods should play some heavenly match And on the wager lay two earthly women, And Portia one, there must be something else Pawned with the other, for the poor rude world Hath not her fellow. (A III, s v)

Jessica describes her first impressions of Portia to Lorenzo. Jessica uses the metaphor of heaven to describe Bassano’s choice of a wife. She believes that Bassanio could not do better than Portia. Her metaphoric scenario of two gods playing at matchmaking hints at the Christian–Judaic competition throughout the play. Jessica straddles the two religious communities and her views give readers deeper insight into Portia’s character. Clearly, Portia has universal appeal as she treats those around her with kindness, showing goodness and selflessness instead of prejudice.