Portia (The Merchant of Venice)

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The Merchant of Venice character
Kate Dolan as Portia (1886), by John Everett Millais
Created byWilliam Shakespeare

Portia is a female character and protagonist in The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. In creating her character Shakespeare drew from the historical figure of Porcia,[1] the daughter of Cato the Younger, as well as several parts of the Bible.[2]

Portia is fond of proverbs, frequently quoting them, which was considered a sign of wisdom and sharp wit in the Elizabethan era. It has been suggested that the character of Portia was based on Queen Elizabeth, who was reigning at the time the play was written. [3]


Portia (1888) by Henry Woods

Portia is a wealthy heiress in Belmont. She is bound by the lottery set forth in her father's will, which gives potential suitors the chance to choose one of three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead, respectively. If they choose the correct casket – the casket containing Portia's portrait and a scroll – they win her hand in marriage. Portia is glad when two suitors, one driven by greed and another by vanity, fail to choose correctly. She favors Bassanio, a young but impoverished Venetian noble but is not allowed to give him any clues to assist him in his choice.

Later in the play, she disguises herself as a man and then assumes the role of a lawyer, Balthazar, whereby she saves the life of Bassanio's friend Antonio in court. In the court scene, Portia finds a technicality in the bond, as it does not allow for the removal of blood, thereby outwitting the Jewish moneylender Shylock and saving Antonio from giving the pound of flesh demanded when everyone else, including the Duke presiding as judge, fails. It is Portia who delivers one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
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.

La belle Portia (1886) Alexandre Cabanel

Despite Portia's lack of formal legal training, she wins her case with reference to the exact language of the law. She uses the tactics of what is sometimes called a Philadelphia lawyer in modern times and in doing so demonstrates that she is far from powerless, irrespective of her earlier lack of choice in the marriage. 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. Portia and Bassanio go on to live together along with the former's lady-in-waiting Nerissa and her husband Gratiano.


Portia and Shylock, by Thomas Sully

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, on television, and in theatres by a number of notable actresses such as Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Sybil Thorndike, Joan Plowright, Caroline John, Lynn Collins, Lily Rabe, and Gemma Jones.

Cultural references[edit]

The character of Portia has had a considerable and long-lived cultural impact.

Notes and references[edit]


  • Delistraty, Cody (30 July 2014). "Who Wins in the Name Game?". The Atlantic. Retrieved 19 October 2018.
  • Shakespeare, William (2011). Drakakis, John (ed.). The Merchant of Venice. The Arden Shakespeare, third series. Bloomsbury Publishing. doi:10.5040/9781408160398.00000006. ISBN 9781903436813.
  • Hicks, Philip (April 2005). "Portia and Marcia: Female Political Identity and the Historical Imagination, 1770–1800". The William and Mary Quarterly. Third Series. 62 (2). Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture: 265–294. doi:10.2307/3491602. eISSN 1933-7698. ISSN 0043-5597. JSTOR 3491602.
  • Karkoschka, Erich (2001). "Comprehensive Photometry of the Rings and 16 Satellites of Uranus with the Hubble Space Telescope". Icarus. 151 (1). American Astronomical Society: 51–68. Bibcode:2001Icar..151...51K. doi:10.1006/icar.2001.6596. ISSN 0019-1035.
  • Kornstein, Daniel J. (1993). "Fie upon Your Law!". Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature. 5 (1, A Symposium Issue on "The Merchant of Venice"). Cardozo School of Law: 35–56. doi:10.2307/743391. ISSN 1043-1500. JSTOR 743391.
  • Kort, Michele (29 August 2005). "Portia heart & soul". The Advocate. Here Media. Archived from the original on 26 May 2015. Retrieved 19 August 2015.
  • Leimberg, Inge (2011). 'What May Words Say ... ?': A Reading of The Merchant of Venice. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
  • Martin, John (2004). "Weldon [née Thomas], Georgina (1837–1914)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53148. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  • "Law School History". New England Law. Retrieved 19 August 2015.

External links[edit]