Merchant of Venice and Portia

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Portia’s True Character

In this play of deceptive appearances, is Portia suspect of not being altogether what she appears to be? Critics have debated this question over the centuries-some with greater enthusiasm than others. One such critic is Anna Jameson. Jameson’ allegations are valid concerning Portia’s undoubted wealth, beauty, and intelligence, but she fails to recognize that she is not all that she appears to be (141).

Jameson’s review gives much praise to Portia. According to Jameson, “Many critics are so dazzled and engrossed by the amazing character of Shylock, that Portia has received less than justice at their hands” (141). Shylock has taken away much of the spotlight from Portia; therefore she is consistently overlooked by critics. Jameson’s opinion on Shylock and Portia’s relationship in the play can be described as “She hangs beside the terrible, inexorable Jew, the brilliant lights of her character set off by the shadowy power of his, like a magnificent beauty-breathing Titian by the side of a gorgeous Rembrandt” (141). Jameson later gives Portia qualities that portray her as sweet and gentle which are attributes that distinguish a beautiful female (141). If these statements are in fact true regarding Portia’s character, then how was she able to pull off the task of acting like a young man at the courthouse in Venice? It would create much difficulty for a woman with so many feministic qualities to convince the courtroom full men that she is in fact a man. Essential evidence that invalidates Jameson’s accusations is Portia’s manipulative mindset when the topic of who she will marry comes into the scene. Instead of following her father’s will which accepted fate as the deciding factor on who she will marry; she wants to independently choose a man to marry. Portia never actually performs any acts that go against her father’s will, but she gives hints to ideas of scheming her way in an effort to finding the right suitor. When Portia speaks to Nerissa about the Duke of Saxony’s nephew, who has come to Belmont in hopes to marry her, she says, “Therefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket; for if the devil be within and that temptation without, I know he will choose it. I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I will be married to a sponge!” Portia is begging for Nerissa to help her design a plan to get her out of a marriage entirely based on fate. Portia will do anything to satisfy her desires, which can be seen when Bassanio first enters her Belmont mansion. Portia begs Bassanio to hold off his decision for a while so they can spend time together in case he chooses incorrectly. Portia does this in an attempt to give Bassanio hints on what casket is the correct one. Portia plays a song during his decision making process in an effort to provide him with a hint to which casket holds the key to their marriage. The first few lines of the music that is played while Bassanio is making his choice serve as a clue because the last word in each line rhymes with led. This shows significance because the led casket is the correct choice; therefore fate played no role in the marriage of Portia and Bassanio. This evidence completely discredits Jameson’s accusations that depict Portia as a woman who shows great dignity. This simple hint suggests that Portia completely defied her father’s will in order to sustain her own desires. According to Hall “The Morocco scene is only the most obvious example of the exclusionary values of Belmont. Portia derides all other suitors for their national shortcomings, reserving her praise for her country-man, Bassanio” (297). Hall suggests that Portia has been brought up in a society where intermarriage between races is frowned upon therefore giving the Prince of Morocco no chance in choosing the correct casket. Her neglecting attitude toward him suggests that she is not as gentle and caring as Jameson...
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