Explain the role of Portia in The Merchant of Venice.


Portia has two roles in this play. The first is to marry, the typical role for a woman in her time period. This role shows just how constricted even a wealthy woman's lot could be. Portia has no choice in who she marries, as her controlling father has set up circumstances so that her future husband must correctly choose one of three caskets in order to win Portia's hand and fortune. She laments, no doubt articulating the woes of many women at the time, "O me, the word 'choose!' I may neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I dislike."

But Portia is not the stereotypical passive woman, accepting her lot: she knows she wants to marry Bassanio. Therefore, she sets it up so that music plays to convey clues about which box he should pick. 

Portia's other, more unconventional role, is to play a lawyer and defend Antonio. Since a woman wasn't actually allowed to be a lawyer, she disguises herself as a man—and does an admirable job defending her client. Her famous speech, "The quality of mercy is not strained," merges the pathos—the appeal to emotions, to our better instincts—that we associate with the stereotypically feminine and the intelligence we associate with a man. She saves Antonio, and both Antonio and Bassanio end up indebted to her. Could Shakespeare be suggesting through Portia that the constricting roles his society imposed on women don't make sense, and that women are capable of as much intelligence and agency as men?

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