Portia’s character in The Marchant of Venice plays a significant role in how the story goes on to the extent that we can consider it as the main character of the play. She is the one who does different things to alter the destiny that befalls Shylock towards the end of the play. Thus, this play and Portia’s personage may be from on aspect regarded as feministic with regards to the historical and cultural context in which the story takes place and the condition of women in such a context. But there are also some reasons why we may consider this work and Portia’s character as antifeminist as well and these works are also worth mentioning since they reflect the multifaceted state of Shakespeare’s work. In most of Shakespeare’s works we face two different worlds: the real world and the nearly ideal world. Therefore, we cannot deny any of these worlds because one indicates the realities of the society and one expresses the more fruitful way people could live. Regarding women’s issues, the antifeminist world may be regarded as the real world under whose conditions most women actually lived. And the ideal world is the feminist world that Shakespeare depicts to indicate that women are capable of doing what men do and they are not less than men, and how the patriarchal society considers them to be.
The story of The Merchant of Venice takes place in the renaissance period in Italy, so we must go through Portia’s life and traits with regards to the historical and cultural context in which all the events happen. In the renaissance period the society was still patriarchal and women were still considered as inferior beings in comparison with the men. They were expected to master household chores along with some abilities which were considered as feminine and necessary for good girls and good wives-to-be such as weaving and embroidery. It was also so important for a girl to be chaste, silent and obedient. Girls were mostly kept at home so that they could be trained to do the aforementioned skills and expectations; besides, they were not normally permitted to be educated. The only exceptions to this rule were daughters of noble families who were able to be taught and tutored at home; but even these girls did not have the allowance to enter school or university. “Even Elizabeth was tutored by the famous Elizabethan scholar Roger Ascham” (Dusinberre 16). After finishing education they could not enter a profession and fields such as law and medicine were considered as masculine and no woman could enter them.
In the patriarchal society of that time women were considered as inferior to men and they were also regarded as the weaker sex (Mack 14). Therefore, it was highly believed that each woman needed to be taken care of by a man. When they were single their father or brother was in charge of looking after them. Even after the father’s death, the responsibility of a female child was taken by a male kin and the girl could not be in control of her life and they even did not have enough rights to take control of what they inherit.
Moreover, Reigning queens had greater difficulties than male rulers. Moreover, “[e]very queen was expected to marry and produce male heirs to continue the dynasty (rulers in the same family line)” (“Women in the Renaissance”). Shakespeare’s Portia lives in such a society but, according to Anne Crow, “The obvious hero of this play is Portia. She is not only central to the romantic comedy, she is also the one who saves Venice [my emphasis] from the predicament it finds itself when its apparently legal system is twisted into an instrument of revenge and used to threaten a barbaric act of cruelty” (34). This is despite the fact that women were mostly depicted as passive victims in Elizabethan drama. In addition, Portia seems not to be an uneducated woman due to the fact that she has so much legal knowledge to analyze the case precisely and find ou that she is able to save Antonio’s life and money so that she decides to go and support the friend of his husband’s in the court of law:
PORTIA. Tarry a little. There is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are “a pound of flesh.”
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But in the cutting it if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice. (4.1.303-309)
Another important point is that there is no man in charge of her life after her father’s death and she is the ruler of Belmont and she is not restricted by a man and even her cousin which is a lawyer backs her up in doing what she has planned to do by writing that letter and introducing her as a male lawyer. Besides, she does not follow social codes and does not ask for her husband’s permission for doing what she intends to do.
Albeit Portia’s father has set the ordeal of the three caskets for the ones who want to marry her and she does not have any control over choosing her future husband and she seems like an obedient girl towards such a decision, she practically wants to control the process and teach Bassanio how to choose the right box and she tries to o her best in order to stop him and postpone the process. She is not a passive character, she does not want to be the victim of destiny, she wants to do something instead of being controlled and this is what was not acceptable and ordinary in the society of the time:
PORTIA. I pray you tarry, pause a day or two Before you hazard,
for in choosing wrong I lose your company;
therefore, forbear awhile.
There’s something tells me (but it is not love)
I would not lose you, and you know yourself,
Hate counsels not in such a quality;
But lest you should not understand me well—
And yet a maiden hath no tongue but thought—
I would detain you here some month or two
Before you venture for me. I could teach you.
How to choose right, but then I am forsworn,
So will I never be, so may you miss me;
But if you do, you’ll make me wish a sin,
That I had been forsworn.
Beshrew your eyes,
They have o’er-looked me and divided me,
One half of me is yours, the other half yours—
Mine own I would say: but if mine then yours,
And so all yours. O, these naughty times
Put bars between the owners and their rights,
And so though yours, not yours. Prove it so—
Let Fortune go to hell for it, not I speak too long,
but ’tis to peise the time,
To eche it and to draw it out in length,
To stay you from election. (3.1.10-24)
On the other hand, along with those feministic characteristics which exist within this play, there are some points which reveal that we may consider it as an anti-feministic one as well. For instance, when Bassanio bellies up to the caskets to cherry-pick one amongst the three, Portia brackets him with Hercules on the verge of redeeming Hesione, the Trojan demoiselle whose father flung her as a sacrifice to a sea monster (Berger Jr. 19):
PORTIA. With no less presence, but with much more love,
Than young Alcides, when he did redeem
The virgin tribute paid by howling Troy
To the sea monster. I stand for sacrifice.
In this section, she is depicted like a fairy-tale maid such as Cinderella who needs a man to save her and make her a fortunate happy woman. She wants and eyes Bassanio as the hero who can save her from the probable adversity which may fall upon her. It is as if she is not an independent individual who can do something beneficial for herself on her own and thus she needs a man to help and save her. In addition, Portia is somehow immured in one of those boxes by her father, a male being, and the key of her liberation is in another man’s hand. “The paternal lock is an emblem of wariness and apprehensiveness, of the father’s refusal to trust his daughter’s discretion in handling his property (i.e., herself)” (Berger Jr. 20). In other words, since she is a woman she is reckoned as an effete personage who is not capable to choose her husband with whom she might be going to spend the rest of her life and there subsist two men, the father and the probable husband-to-be, who rule her life applicatively.
Next, through her particular diction in some parts of the play we can see the anti-feministic facet of her personality. some exemplars of such a situation is when she uses “… two masculine forms in ‘lord’ and ‘master’ to suggest supremacy …” ( Crow 35); she uses bombastic words for calling and talking about Bassanio after he becomes her mister, while she limns herself as an uneducated and illiterate person who is not enough erudite and well-read. Besides, she mentions herself in third person instead of first person which shows her sense of inferiority in comparing herself with Bassanio. The next thing I like to mention is that she dedicates all her properties to her husband and this indicates that she does not find herself capable of reigning them :
PORTIA. You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am. Though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish
To wish myself much better, yet for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself—
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times More rich.
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is some of something which, to term in gross,
Js an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised,
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king…. [they kiss]
Myself and what is irine to you and yours Is now converted.
But now I was the lord Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants, and this same myself,
Are yours—my lord’s!—I give them with this ring,
‘Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love,
And be my vantage to exclaim on you. (5.2.149-176)
The next thing I want to discuss is the psychological force beyond some of her significant actions during the course of the story. Obviously “[s]ociety’s rules and definitions concerning sexuality form a large part of our superego, or the social values and taboos that we internalize … and experience as the sense of right or wrong” (Tyson 25). Her superego is full of society’s beliefs regarding her sex and the definition of society of her gender; and this is what makes her utter the aforementioned words through which she expresses her internal sense of inferiority towards the male figure. This is also the reason why she, at last, cannot resist obeying and following his father’s will. According to Lewis Tyson:
… many women, whether they consider themselves feminists or not, have a difficult time believing that little girls, upon realizing that little boys have penises, suffer from penis envy…The explanation for [this phenomenon] becomes clear, however, when we realize the cultural context within which Freud observed them: Victorian society’s rigid definition of gender roles, which was used to oppress females of all ages and to elevate males to positions of dominance in all spheres of human activity. Is it any wonder that a little girl will want (at least unconsciously) to be a little boy when she realizes that little boys have rights and privileges she isn’t supposed to even desire? In other words, when you see “penis envy” read “power envy.” It’s power and all that seems to go with it—self‑esteem, fun, freedom, safety from physical violation by the opposite sex—that little girls envy… (25).
Thus we can assert that the reason upon which some of her deeds seem to be feministic and the cause of many of her major deeds is that she suffers from penis envy and unconsciously she prefers to be a boy to be able to have rights such as being a lawyer, being able to choose her future husband by herself, or doing what she wants without the permission of a superior being called husband, father, or man. This is why she does not tell Bassanio about what she really wants to do and she prefers to lie. Or that is wherefore she changes her appearance to a boy’s; she would rather be a boy, otherwise she could have ask Belarino for help and he probably would have helped her by attending the trial himself and defending Antonio; she would rather be a boy to have a power that a boy has.
All in all, there exists many controversies within Portia’s character which makes this play an ambivalent one and which does not let us reckon this play as a feministic or a non-feministic work of art. She can be considered as the hero of the play from some dimensions, while she can be reckoned as a stereotypical woman who strictly follows the social codes and norms of her time based upon other dimensions of her personality and based upon how we interpret character’s actions. Therefore, we cannot say for sure if Portia is a feminist and if the play is a feministic one or not, since there exists much ambivalence within this ambiguous piece of literature.