Portia (The Merchant of Venice)

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Kate Dolan as Portia, painted by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
Creator William Shakespeare
Play The Merchant of Venice
Source Merchant of Venice

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, 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.

The strength of Portia as a role has made it attractive to many notable actresses. Frances Abington, Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Whitlock all played Portia in the 18th century when actresses first started appearing on stage. More recently, the role has been depicted in the cinema and on television by a number of notable actresses such as Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Sybil Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Caroline John and Gemma Jones.

Portia's nature has received some negative critiques. The famous Jewish writer Wolf Mankowitz dubbed her a "cold, snobbish little bitch" in a video he made about anti-Semitism against Shylock the moneylender[citation needed].

The concept of "rhetoric" and its abuse is brought to light by Portia: the idea that an unjust argument may win through eloquence, loopholes and technicalities, regardless of the moral question at hand.

Portia and Shylock, by Thomas Sully
Portia (1888) by Henry Woods


The original Portia Shakespeare drew from was Porcia Catonis, the wife of the Roman statesman Brutus.

Cultural references[edit]

The character of Portia has had a considerable and long-lived cultural impact. Portia is the name John Adams used to address his wife Abigail in his letters, presumably after Shakespeare's character. (Abigail addressed her husband as "Lysander" in letters, a reference to a Shakespearean character appearing in A Midsummer Night's Dream.)

The New England School of Law was originally known as the Portia Law School when it was established in 1908 as a women-only law school, and was known by that name until 1969. In his Rumpole novels (filmed for the ITV series), author John Mortimer has Rumpole call Phyllida Erskine-Brown (née Trant) the 'Portia of our Chambers'. Despite Portia's lack of formal legal training her ingenuity is of the variety exhibited by what is known as a Philadelphia lawyer (i.e., a lawyer who prevails on technicalities rather than the legal merits of his argument).

In 1986, a moon of Uranus was named after Portia (see Uranus' natural satellites).

The University of the Philippines College of Law's only college-based and law-exclusive sorority, the UP Portia Sorority, established in 1933, is named after her. The character of Portia is an embodiment of the sorority's dedication to justice, honor, and excellence.



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