Portia is the beautiful, witty heroine of the play. The plot of the suitors choosing caskets to secure her love is central to the story, but it is perhaps her independent daring act of disguising herself as a lawyer to save Antonio that she is best remembered for.
‘Her sunny locks/ Hang on her temples like a golden fleece’
• Bassanio describes Portia as a beautiful woman whose blonde hair resembles a golden fleece.
• The simile suggests that Portia is being judged in terms of her appearance and her wealth. The golden fleece refers to the Greek myth in which Jason and his crew of Argonauts sailed in a quest which had the golden fleece as the prize.
Context: The way that Bassanio is interested in Portia as a prize suggests that he is motivated by her wealth rather than love. In the 16th century, marriages were often partly based on financial considerations. Women were expected to bring a dowry (sum of money) to their marriage so an Elizabethan audience would have understood Bassanio’s mercenary attitude.
‘So is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father’
• Portia regrets that her father’s casket task has left her unable to follow her own wishes and desires.
• The parallel sentence structure emphasises the binding power of her father’s decision and shows how restricted Portia is.
• Portia’s pun on ‘will’ reflects her wit and intelligence. Shakespeare presents her as a character to be admired.
Context: Wordplay or punning was popular with Elizabethan audiences and Shakespeare often uses it to entertain and to engage. Here, the pun on ‘will’ also reflects how Portia, as a woman in Renaissance Italy, has no independence to exert her own will, and is controlled by the men in her life.
‘This house, these servants and this same myself’
• Portia gives herself entirely to Bassanio when they become betrothed.
• The list emphasises that she is giving everything; interestingly, she places herself as the last item in the list, possibly implying that the material possessions are of more interest to him.
Context: In the 16th century, women were the property of their husbands. They had no legal rights and could not own property; Portia’s words may seem generous and selfless yet they also reflect the stark reality of the situation as she, and all of her property and wealth, does indeed belong to Bassanio.
‘Tarry a little; there is something else. This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood’
• In the courtroom, Portia, masquerading as lawyer, uses the law to save Antonio from his grisly death. It is Portia, a woman, who is the hero of the play. Her intelligence and quick-thinking stops Shylock from collecting the bond and killing Antonio. She is fully in control of the situation.
• The forceful imperative verb ‘tarry’ (wait) shows that it is Portia in control in the courtroom, giving commands that the men have to abide by. The semi-colon creates a suspenseful pause after ‘Tarry a little’. Portia holds everyone’s attention with her enigmatic ‘there is something else’, withholding the information and choosing when to deliver her stunning understanding of the law that will halt Shylock and save Antonio.
‘The Jew shall have all justice‘
• Portia traps Shylock in the courtroom.
• Despite her words about the importance of mercy at the start of the courtroom scene, she shows none to Shylock. She is cold and meticulous as she ruthlessly traps Shylock in the web of the law.
• She consistently dismissively refers to Shylock as ‘the Jew’ or ‘Jew’, revealing her entrenched prejudice against him.
Grade 9 Analysis
Look at the character in a different way.
Is Portia a powerful woman?
Yes: Portia runs her household and manages her wealth independently, and Shakespeare presents her as much more sensible and resourceful than her male partner. While Bassanio sighs over Antonio’s fate with empty promises, Portia takes control of the situation, moving into a man’s world to skilfully manipulate the male-dominated courtroom. She only agrees to marry Bassanio after she has negotiated a position of power by giving the ring that binds Bassanio with conditions to love and respect her.
No: Despite the audience’s rapport with Portia, she is not a powerful figure. Any power that Portia does wield in the courtroom scene is because the other characters believe her to be a man; without her male disguise, she would be instantly silenced. She can only succeed in the male world if she denies or hides her femininity. Furthermore, she is ultimately subservient to her husband as the ring is an Elizabethan symbol of female submission. Although she is a character whom we admire, we see her as restricted within a patriarchal (male-dominated) society.