Portia in The Merchant of Venice: Character Analysis, Monologue & Quotes

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  • 0:01 Portia's Suitors
  • 2:20 The Test
  • 3:12 Antonio's Debt
  • 4:24 The Ring
  • 5:25 Character Analysis
  • 6:46 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Portia in 'The Merchant of Venice' is one of the strongest and wisest characters found in William Shakespeare's plays. In this tragicomedy, Portia uses her creativity and wit to save the life of her husband's best friend, Antonio.

Portia's Suitors

Portia is the romantic heroine of The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare's tragicomedy. As The Merchant of Venice opens, Portia's father has passed away, leaving her with a stunning inheritance. This beautiful, wealthy woman is now the sought-after prize for many a young suitor, including those who travel from other countries to win her hand in marriage.

Portia loves a young Venetian gentleman named Bassanio and hopes he will pursue her; however, her interest comes with a hitch. As dictated by her father, the suitor who wins her hand must pass a test and choose from among three chests filled with gold, silver or lead.

Each chest has an inscription:

  • The gold box says, 'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.'
  • The silver box says, 'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.'
  • The lead box says, 'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'

Only one of the chests contains a picture of Portia, and if the suitor chooses wisely, he will win her hand in marriage. Portia's maid and confidant, Nerissa, assures the young woman that her father was a good man with her best interests at heart. However, Portia may not love the suitor who chooses the right chest, leaving her with no say over her personal happiness.

She explains her dilemma to Nerissa in this monologue:

'If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions. I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. Such a hare is madness the youth - to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word 'choose!' I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike - so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?'

Portia understands the difference between knowing and doing what's right. Her deepest frustration lies in her inability to choose her own suitor due to her loyalty to her father.

The Test

Portia has many suitors, including the three finalists who get to choose from among the chests. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold chest, which contains a skull and a note telling him that 'All that glitters is not gold.' The Prince of Arragon chooses the silver chest, which contains a picture of a fool. Much to Portia's delight, Bassanio chooses the lead chest, which contains her picture.

Bassanio and Portia marry immediately, after which Bassanio finds out that the life of his best friend, Antonio, is in danger. Bassanio reveals that a greedy merchant, Shylock, loaned him 3,000 ducats, or gold coins, so he'd have enough to win Portia's heart. As Bassanio's best friend, Antonio, guaranteed the loan, Portia gives her new husband 6,000 ducats. This more than covers the amount owed to Shylock.

Antonio's Debt

When Bassanio arrives home, he realizes Shylock is more interested in revenge, or the taking of a pound of Antonio's flesh, than money. These are the original terms of the loan. Shylock hates Antonio because he refuses to lend money at interest, and this makes Shylock, who charges high interest rates on loans, look bad. The fact that Shylock is a Jew and Antonio is a Christian and something of an anti-Semite, or someone who is prejudicial against Jews, contributes to the ethnic and religious tension between the two men.

Although the situation initially seems hopeless, the quick-thinking Portia disguises herself as Balthasar, an apprentice lawyer, and takes command of Antonio's destiny. At first, she agrees with Shylock that he has a legal claim on Antonio's pound of flesh, but then shrewdly turns the tables on the villain. Portia tells Shylock that he can only have his pound of flesh if he doesn't shed a single drop of Antonio's blood. As the contract only refers to Antonio's flesh, and not his blood, and Shylock cannot remove his pound of flesh without drawing blood, the moneylender loses in court.

The Ring

When Portia and Bassanio marry, she gives him a ring and makes him swear he will never remove it. But Portia puts his word to the test when, disguised as Balthasar, she asks Bassanio for the ring as payment for saving Antonio's life. At first, Bassanio resists, but after Balthasar continues to plead, he relents. When Portia returns home with the ring, she confronts Bassanio, saying:

'You were to blame, I must be plain with you,
To part so slightly with your wife's first gift:
A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger
And so riveted with faith unto your flesh.
I gave my love a ring and made him swear
Never to part with it; and here he stands' (5.1).'

At first, Bassanio tries to justify his gift of the ring to Balthasar but ultimately asks forgiveness. After revealing her role in court, Portia reminds her husband that she is a strong, wise woman to be valued and that he must keep his promises.

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