Portia: a woman ahead of her time?
(The Merchant of Venice)
Portia is undoubtedly one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent and interesting heroines. She is certainly beautiful and obedient (as evidenced in the numerous suitors she has and her adherence to her father’s marriage terms), but equal to this is her power and ability to overcome obstacles: this has led to feminist readings of the play. She finds loopholes in the rigid rules of her father’s provision for her marriage, enabling her to marry Bassanio as she wishes. She later disguises herself as a male lawyer’s apprentice to save her husband’s friend’s life, which she achieves by outwitting Shylock through a technicality after he rebuffs her impassioned speech advocating mercy. It is through her cleverness that Antonio is reprieved. After the dramatic courtroom scenes, Portia (in disguise) playfully taunts her husband by forcing him to give her a ring that she had demanded he never part with. Her clever manipulation of her husband results in her ultimately gaining power over him, through both saving Antonio and tricking Bassanio into breaking his promise. As a result, she is in the ‘power’ position in the relationship, which was rare in Elizabethan England’s aggressively patriarchal society.
However, some contemporary readings paint a less favourable picture of Portia, particularly in relation to perceived racism she displays towards the Prince of Morocco’s ‘complexion’ and towards Shylock, calling him ‘Jew’ rather than his name. While this would have been acceptable to contemporary audiences (TMoV was published between 1596-1599), modern viewers would find this objectionable. In this sense, the values she displays are outmoded, although this argument could be applied to any text published outside of our own time. Overall, Portia could be described as ‘ahead of her time’ because of her quick-witted cunning and intelligence, through which she proves her equivalence with the male characters.
Shakespeare, W. (2000) The Merchant of Venice. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.