Saturday, 8 September 2012

Who is Portia? Spoilt, Snobby Rich Girl or Savvy Advocate of Mercy Over Justice?

The role of Portia in Shakespeare's
The Merchant of Venice

Portia is one of Shakespeare's most memorable characters, but, with the exception of the "quality of mercy" speech, the reasons for her popularity may not seem obvious.

Although officially categorised as a comedy, The Merchant of Venice is considered one of Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays’, because it contains moments of tragedy and does not have a conventionally ‘happy’ ending.

However, there are undoubtedly moments of comedy within the play and Portia, although not a comic character in the sense of a clownish or foolish figure, provides the play with some clownish moments and lots of sarcastic wit.

Portia is a “Mocker”

For some actors, playing Portia poses the challenge of reconciling two very different facets of her character. While in Belmont, Portia is pursued by numerous suitors, all of whom are victim to her scathing remarks. Consequently, some may draw the conclusion that Portia is simply a spoilt rich girl, who enjoys mocking these hapless men.

However, it is worth remembering that The Merchant of Venice was billed as a comedy. Therefore, to place things in a modern perspective, if Portia is viewed as a Bridget Jones-type character and the suitors are deemed as comic vehicles, which undoubtedly was Shakespeare’s intent, she is not a woman with a cruel streak and too much time on her hands, but a clever and witty character whose comments are intended to make an audience laugh.

Portia is a “Learned Judge”

Is Portia a comedy character?
During Act IV, an audience’s perception of Portia changes. Of course, this change is not immediate. In fact, it is reasonable to assume an audience that did not know the play would assume that the trial scene, in which Portia and Nerissa pose as doctors of law, a purely comic scene would follow.

Indeed, this is certainly suggested with Portia’s “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”(IV.i), which is the subject of much critical debate. The line could indicate that Antonio and Shylock cannot be differentiated by sight. However, it is likely that Shylock would be dressed very differently and would appear ‘exotic’ to an Elizabethan audience. Therefore, Portia’s line is perhaps intended to suggest that her endeavour to help will be utterly disastrous, and her ignorance is intended to illicit laughter.

Moreover, her attempts seem doomed to fail with her na├»ve suggestion, “Then must the Jew be merciful”(IV.i). It is not until she launches into the “quality of mercy” oration that an audience begins to see a different side to her.

However, as this tactic and subsequent suggestions fail, it appears that she may be unsuccessful after all.

But, when Shylock claims that Portia is “…a wise young judge”(IV.i) the audience is tipped off that all will be well (although not for Shylock), because dramatic tradition teaches us that when a villain is over-confident, he will not prevail. Nevertheless, in true dramatic fashion, Portia waits until the last moment to exclaim, “Tarry a little…”(IV.i) and reveal the gaping loophole in Shylock’s bond.

The Merchant of Venice is not dissimilar
to modern  rom-coms
In this, she proves herself, if not 'more intelligent', then certainly 'more clever', than the men of the play.

Portia is a Wife

Similarly, she outsmarts her husband, although is perhaps not so pleased to have done so, when, as Balthazar, she persuades Bassanio to part with the ring he swore to never remove from his hand. This part of the play is clearly deemed comic, too. However, it also serves to put things back as they were. In other words, by playing this trick on their husbands, Portia and Nerissa are returning to the audience’s original perception of them as lovable, but at the end of the day, rather silly women.

This is something that all male/female comedies, even in the twenty-first century, have to do to be palatable to a mainstream audience.

Like so many of Shakespeare’s characters, it is impossible to define Portia with one overriding characteristic. She is smart and sassy, with the ability to be a little cruel and sardonic. These facets of her personality cannot and should not be divided or reconciled.

In fact, it is perhaps her clever wit, which manifests itself as cruelty towards the suitors at the beginning of the play, that allows her to outsmart Shylock in the Duke’s chambers.

To find out more about Portia in performance, watch Lynn Collins in Michael Radford's, 2004, film adaptation of the play.

If you'd like to read more about Portia and Shakespeare's other women, take a look at Are Shakespeare's Plays Sexist?

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