Portia (The Merchant of Venice)
Kate Dolan as Portia, painted by John Everett Millais (1829–1896)
|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 is glad when two suitors, one driven by greed and another by vanity, fail to choose correctly. She favours Bassanio, a young Venetian noble, 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 and appealing of the heroines in Shakespeare's 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 the role of Portia 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 in performances of the play. 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 Jewish writer Wolf Mankowitz dubbed her a "cold, snobbish little bitch" in a video he made about antisemitism against Shylock the moneylender.
Despite Portia's lack of formal legal training, she wins her case by referring to the details of the exact language of the law. Her success involves prevailing on technicalities rather than the merits of the situation. She uses the tactics of what is sometimes called a Philadelphia lawyer. However, the concept of rhetoric and its abuse is also brought to light by Portia – highlighting the idea that an unjust argument may win through eloquence, loopholes and technicalities, regardless of the moral question at hand – and thus provoking the audience to consider that issue.
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".
- 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.