Portia is the heroine of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. A rich, beautiful, and intelligent heiress, she is bound by the lottery set forth in her father's will, which gives potential suitors the chance to choose between three caskets composed of gold, silver and lead. If they choose the right casket – the casket containing Portia's portrait – they win Portia's hand in marriage. If they choose the wrong casket, they must leave and never seek another woman in marriage. Portia favours Bassanio, but is not allowed to give him any clues to assist in his choice. Later in the play, she disguises herself as a man, and then assumes the role of a lawyer's apprentice (named Balthazar) whereby she saves the life of Bassanio's friend, Antonio, in court. Portia is one of the most prominent of Shakespeare's heroines in his mature romantic comedies. She is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, and quick-witted, with high standards for her potential romantic partners. She obeys her father's will while steadfastly seeking to obtain Bassanio. She demonstrates tact to the Princes of Morocco and Aragon, who unsuccessfully seek her hand. In the court scenes, Portia finds a technicality in the bond, thereby outwitting Shylock and saving Antonio's life when everyone else fails. Yet, she also shows immense injustice and cruelty towards the figure of Shylock and those who are sympathetic with Shylock see her as the epitome of blunt, barbaric, Christian primitivism. It is Portia who delivers one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice: The quality of mercy is not strain'd.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Like Antonio, Portia is an example of nobility. She is a fair-haired beauty with an immense power to attract. Her goodness and virtue enhance her beauty. Unlike Antonio, she is not passive, but displays energy and determination. In many ways, hers is the more forceful figure in the play. Her authority and control with which she deals and manipulates the circumstances of the play are exemplary. In Belmont, the terms of her father's will leave her without any choice in her future husband, and she is saddened that she does not have an appropriate mate. As a dutiful daughter, however, she is compelled to accept her father's wishes. Despite her dissatisfaction with her circumstances, she has a cheerful and optimistic nature. She is clever with words and wit and enjoys the opportunity of performing, both in Belmont and Venice. She uses her wonderful ability with words and her keen sense of humor to enliven the scenes in which she appears. Her treatment of her money reflects Bassanio's belief that money is to be used only in the sense of helping loved ones. She proves she is unselfish and generous. Her happiness and Antonio's meet in Bassanio. Her ideal of mercy is unselfish generosity and she shows an understanding of Christian values. As a Christian gentlewoman, she considers it her duty to show Shylock the foolishness of his exact interpretation of the law that has no mercy. She dresses as a young lawyer and goes to court to defend Antonio. Like Shylock has demanded, she strictly interprets the law and disallows the Jew from taking a drop of Antonio's blood when he takes his pound of flesh. Since this is impossible, Shylock begs to just be given money, but Portia is unrelenting. She cites another law that states any alien who tries to take the life of a Venetian is to lose all of his money, which will be split between the state and the person who was to be killed. As a result, Shylock loses all of his wealth. Portia has cleverly tricked Shylock at his own game. Portia is the most multi-dimensional character in the play, alternating between a beautiful woman in the remote setting of Belmont and the authoritative lawyer in Venice, who orchestrates the victory of good over evil. Nerissa
Nerissa is Portia's maid. At the beginning of the play, she acts as a sounding board to Portia. She listens to Portia complain about her life and the unfairness of the casket contest and tells her to suck it up and be glad her father was wise enough to plan for his daughter's future. This, of course, tells us that Nerissa is a very practical girl. She acts as a backdrop to the wit displayed by Portia. Her long association with her mistress has elevated her mannerisms and behavior to the point that she now acts as a witty and intelligent person. She, too, follows the examples set by Portia in many ways: she marries a gentleman from Venice, she follows Portia to Venice, she assumes the role of a lawyer's clerk and she takes her ring from her lover. She is to Portia what Gratiano is to Bassanio. Jessica
As the daughter of Shylock, she is compelled to abandon him. The difference in their temperaments has made her circumstances intolerable. She is, although a Jew, as different from her father "as jet to ivory." She is more at home with Christian ways than with the austerity of her father's Jewish house. She likes Launcelot because of his capacity to introduce merriment to an otherwise gloomy household. She shows ingenuity in disguising as a pageboy to affect her elopement. Although guilty of theft and filial ingratitude in betraying her father, she shows an understanding of the moral sins that she has committed. Her drawbacks are mitigated by her loving and exuberant nature, which is similar to Portia's vivacity and wit. As the daughter of Shylock, she is compelled to abandon him. The difference in their temperaments has made her circumstances intolerable. She is, although a Jew, as different from her father "as jet to ivory." She is more at home with Christian ways than with the austerity of her father's Jewish house. She likes Launcelot because of his capacity to introduce merriment to an otherwise gloomy household. She shows ingenuity in disguising as a pageboy to affect her elopement. Although guilty of theft and filial ingratitude in betraying her father, she shows an understanding of the moral sins that she has committed. Her drawbacks are mitigated by her loving and exuberant nature, which is similar to Portia's vivacity and wit. In my opinion, the reason why we admire Portia is not because we are impressed the actual words of the Mercy Speech, but that fact that she, who we have previously seen as pampered and frivolous, when confronted with evil, stands tall and speaks her truth. Antonio and all his friends are willing to just stand by and allow an outrage to happen, but Portia is the one person who has the guts to actually take action against it.