Consider Shakespeare’s presentation of Portia in “The Merchant Of Venice”
“The Merchant of Venice” is believed to have been written in the 16th century and it is to a large extent reflective of England at the time, which was a patriarchal society. Portia’s character embodies the characteristics of an ideal woman at the time that arguably defers to her father and eventually her husband. However, as the play advances we see a different side of Portia.
Shakespeare introduces her character in a very conventional way. He uses Bassanio as a device for introducing the character of Portia. The audience is treated to Bassanio’s perception of Portia. It is through him the audience forms an impression of Portia, with the aid of his effective use of imagery. Bassanio begins with: “In Belmont there is a lady richly left,
And she’s fair, and – fairer than that word –
Of wondrous virtues.”
To get a clearer picture of who Portia is from Bassiano’s perspective, we consider his choice of words in his description. For example, “Richly left” – her wealth is the first quality the audience learns about before we hear of her beauty as well as her virtues. The adjective “fair” and the use of the comparative form “fairer” in the same line gives the impression that she is stunning. In addition to that, “wondrous” which qualifies her virtues portrays that she is of impeccable character. Bassanio’s speech foregrounds the idea that a woman’s wealth, fairness and virtues are the qualities men looked for in women at the time.
Bassanio then finally formally introduces her to the audience: “Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth”
A modern day audience is able to instantly see clearly that women are assigned second-class status, because Bassanio describes her as though she is defined by her relationship with Cato (in this case her daughter). His reference to her as Brutus’ Portia helps the audience get a feel of what she is really like, as Shakespeare brings the characters of Brutus and Portia from Julius Caesar, which the audience is most likely familiar with. Portia in Julius Caesar starts out as a devoted wife but as the play progresses shows steadiness as well as masculinity and in fact her character echoes Queen Elizabeth who famously said “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king” – these are qualities Portia exemplifies in The Merchant of Venice as well. “Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth” informs the audience that everybody acknowledges that she is a catch and she is in fact many men’s dream wife, which lays emphasis on her fairness and virtues. In addition to this he says: “Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece,
Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos’ strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her”
Here Bassanio uses classical mythology to qualify. In one of the oldest quest stories, Jason led a party of Greek heroes called the Argonatus through many hazards in order to bring back the Golden Fleece from the shores of Colchis on the Black Sea. His intriguing use of metaphors and simile highlights how there are many men after her.
Finally, we meet Portia in the next scene, where her first line is: “By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of the great world” This echoes Antonio’s opening line of the play, which highlights the point that the world of Belmont – a feminine world- and the world of Venice – a masculine world- are going to be intrinsically linked throughout the play mainly through Portia and Antonio. Portia then informs the audience of the casket test – which is a test her dead father arranged for her husband to be chosen. “I may neither choose who I marry, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.” Portia reiterates Edwin Sandys’s Sermon Sixteen where he insists that...
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