Quick-witted, wealthy, and beautiful, Portia embodiesthe virtues that are typical of Shakespeare’s heroines—it is nosurprise that she emerges as the antidote to Shylock’s malice. Atthe beginning of the play, however, we do not see Portia’s potentialfor initiative and resourcefulness, as she is a near prisoner, feelingherself absolutely bound to follow her father’s dying wishes. Thisopening appearance, however, proves to be a revealing introductionto Portia, who emerges as that rarest of combinations—a free spiritwho abides rigidly by rules. Rather than ignoring the stipulationsof her father’s will, she watches a stream of suitors pass her by,happy to see these particular suitors go, but sad that she has nochoice in the matter. When Bassanio arrives, however, Portia provesherself to be highly resourceful, begging the man she loves to staya while before picking a chest, and finding loopholes in the will’sprovision that we never thought possible. Also, in her defeat ofShylock Portia prevails by applying a more rigid standard than Shylockhimself, agreeing that his contract very much entitles him to hispound of flesh, but adding that it does not allow for any loss ofblood. Anybody can break the rules, but Portia’s effectiveness comesfrom her ability to make the law work for her.

Portia rejects the stuffiness that rigid adherence tothe law might otherwise suggest. In her courtroom appearance, shevigorously applies the law, but still flouts convention by appearingdisguised as a man. After depriving Bassanio of his ring, she stopsthe prank before it goes to far, but still takes it far enough toberate Bassanio and Gratiano for their callousness, and she eveninsinuates that she has been unfaithful.

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The Merchant of Venice (jajalger2018.org Literature Guide)


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