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The Sly Side of Portia
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents the theme; looks can be deceiving. This is seen in the character of Portia. She portrays herself as a pleasant person when it comes to Bassanio, but is deceitful and mean when it comes to her suitors. She also disguises herself as Balthazar, a young doctor who is to judge in the courtroom of Shylock and Antonio. Once again, we see her cunning ways towards the end of the play when she taunts Bassanio about the ring that she had given him earlier because it is missing. Portias’ shrewd and dishonest ways show how looks can be deceiving.
Portia is left without a suitor at the death of her father. However, he has designed a means of judgement by leaving three caskets from which a suitor must choose: gold, silver, and lead. The correct casket contains a picture of Portia. If the wrong casket is chosen, then that suitor must never pursue another woman concerning the subject of marriage. Portia views her suitors as; “Oh, these deliberate fools! When they do choose, they have the wisdom by their wit to lose” (Shakespeare 39). She says that the Prince of Morocco is “A gentle riddance! I curtains, go. Let all of his complexion choose me so” (Shakespeare 34). This shows not only harsh criticism, but also her prejudices against color. When Bassanio comes in however, Portia responds in an entirely new and opposite manner. She asks Bassanio to wait a while, telling him; “Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong, I lose your company” (Shakespeare 44). Bassanio chooses the right casket and Portia promises all her possessions to be equally his – on one condition. She gives him a ring saying “Which when you part from, lose, or give away, let it presage the ruin of your love” (Shakespeare 50). This is but a trap for Bassanio. Thus, Portia’s sly side begins to reappear.
A letter has come to Bassanio concerning his good friend Antonio. Bassanio tells Portia about the debt Antonio owes of one pound of flesh to Shylock, which is a result of his own borrowing of money to come woo her. Antonio has been unable to produce that money and has been summoned to court concerning the agreement he made with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Portia gives him the money to bail Shylock out, but is disappointed that she has to stay home. She decides to disguise herself as Balthazar, who will be the replacement judge for Dr. Ballario in the trial about the debt. She is not recognized by Bassanio and saves Antonio from his debt by disproving the bond held by Shylock. She says; “This bond doth give thee her no jot of blood . . . if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate” (Shakespeare 72). She has now beaten Shylock at his own game of deception and no one has recognized her.
Portia, disguised as Balthazar, has pushed the trial in favor of Shylock. She, once again, is mischievous when she asks for her own ring off of Bassanio’s finger as remembrance or tribute of the trial. Persuasively, she tells him; “For your love, I’ll take this ring from you: Do not draw back your hand; I’ll take no more; and you in love shall not deny me this” (Shakespeare 76). Bassanio reluctantly gives her (Balthazar) the ring. Upon their return, Portia – with the ring in her own hand – asks him why it is not on his finger. She leads him into thinking he has lost her by helping his friend saying; “If you had known the virtue of the ring, or half her worthiness that have the ring, or your own honour to contain the ring, You would not then have parted with the ring” (Shakespeare 85). Portia finally gives Bassino back the ring after she has tortured him with comments of unworthiness, telling him to be more careful in the future.
Portia appears to be very nice when Bassanio is choosing a casket, but the story reveals a cruel streak that is very cunning and calculated. Through manipulation, Portia woos Bassanio and tests his love unjustly. Her appearance of kindness is pushed aside as she reveals her cruel side of manipulation. Thus, deceiving appearances remains the underlying theme of The Merchant of Venice as seen in the character of Portia.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1995.
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