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Shakespeare's Characters: Portia (The Merchant of Venice)

From The Works of William Shakespeare. Vol. 8. Ed. Evangeline Maria O'Connor. J.D. Morris and Co., 1901.

In the elements which compose the character of Portia, Shakspeare anticipated, but without intention, the intellect of those modern women who can wield so gracefully many of the tools which have been hitherto monopolized by men. But the same genius which endowed her with a large and keen intelligence derived it from her sex, and, for the sake of it, he did not sacrifice one trait of her essential womanliness. This commands our attention very strongly; for it is the clue which we must start with.

She is still a woman to the core of her beauty-loving heart. Coming home from the great scene in Venice, where she baffles Shylock, and swamps with sudden justice the scales that were so eager for the bonded flesh, she loiters in the moonlight, marks the music which is floating from her palace to be caressed by the night and made sweeter than by day. Her listening ear is modulated by all the tenderness she feels and the love she expects; so she gives the music the color of a soul that has come home to wife and motherhood, till her thoughts put such a strain upon the vibrating strings that they grow too tense, and threaten to divulge her delicate secret....

Portia has the strong sense to expect that the majority of her noble admirers will be taken by appearance. She is not quite sure, but has an instinct, that these gentlemen who are after her are also after her pretty property of Belmont, and will be likely to choose the metals responsive to this temper. Bassanio frankly acknowledges to a friend that he would like to repair his broken fortunes; but Shakspeare shows him to be a lover before he gives this mercenary hint; and he has reason to surmise that Portia loves him.

This unspoken mutuality dignifies his quest; as if Shakspeare himself would not admit the charge that he is a fortune-hunter. And it is noticeable how little consequence we attach to Bassanio's character. We do not care to see him in any action, or to have him show a worthiness to be Portia's lover. He is but the lay-figure of her love: there is so much of her that there must be a great deal of him, and he may be spared the trouble of appearing at full length. And we never suspect her of belonging to that tribe of bright women who, either from instinct or calculation, marry good-natured, well-mannered numskulls, and never have reason to sue for a divorce. Shakspeare ennobles Bassanio when the divining soul sees through the leaden lid.

But what if one of the other suitors should also have a noble heart whose pulses feed discernment, one as fine and unconventional as herself! There is just hazard enough to affront her cherishing of the absent Bassanio. She does not relish the moment when her heart, richer than the princes know of, goes into the lottery.

However, when her father made his will, it doubtless occurred to her that his choice of metals came from a life's experience of the calibre of the average man, and was meant affectionately to protect her till the true gentleman should come.

As Nerissa says, "Your father was ever virtuous; and holy men, at their death, have good inspirations; therefore, the lottery that he hath devised in these three chests, of gold, silver, and lead (whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you) will, no doubt, never be chosen by any rightly but one whom you shall rightly love." Fortunate is the man who wins a wife because he chooses Heaven's meaning in a woman! Luckless the wife who is not chosen by some implied Heaven in a man!...

An ordinary woman might have enmeshed him in a cocoon of delicate coquetries: any woman dead in love, and a little less than strict to an oath, would have managed in some way to provoke that lead casket into twinkling a hint to him. But she is too honest for either. A woman with a soul as tender as it is firm, here she stands dismayed as Destiny is about to rattle its dice upon her heart: happiness, and a future worthy of her, all at stake.

For though her mental resources might compete with any fate, she is all woman, made to be a wife, and without wifehood to feel herself at one essential point impaired, — all the more defrauded because so well endowed. How she clings for support to the few moments that yet stand before his choice! She wishes there were more of them to stay her. . . .

Now Bassanio, who lives upon the rack, denies her plea for delay: "Let me to my fortune and the caskets." How profoundly she surmises that music might lull the watching Fate, so that he could pass to his Eurydice! She bids the music play: —
" As are those dulcet sounds in break of day, That creep into the dreaming bridegroom's eari And summon him to marriage."
Bassanio must be attempered to his choice; the song's key must have an instinct for the proper casket's key. Unconsciously she breaks her oath; for what benign influence selected the song that is now sung? Some star, whose tenant was her father? Or was it Nerissa's doing, who determined to convey a hint to the lover? Or did Gratiano hit upon it, who had got from Nerissa a promise of her love if the choice went to suit her? A hint, indeed! It is the very breadth of broadness, and a lover is not dull. . . .

When Portia's heart unties the spasm of joy that tightened round it at Bassanio's choice, it beats again with the grave and sweet dignity that is as native to her as her playful wit. Her mind recognizes the serious change that must befall her fortune: in the first moment of it there comes a deep humility that makes her speech kneel at the feet of the man whom she will marry. For her great superiority is free from the taint of conceit, save "a noble and a true conceit of godlike amity." ...

So Portia, who could, when it was needed, "turn two mincing steps into a manly stride," doffs the lawyer's robe, and, returning, is met by music and conducted to a palace that was not till then a home.
Weiss: Wit, Humor, and Shakspeare.


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