Free Merchant of Venice Essays: Portia and the Art

of Justice Merchant Venice EssaysPortia and the Art of Justice

In Shakespeare controversial play, The Merchant of Venice, the character, Antonio calls this world “a stage where every man must play a part”. He really cannot imagine that it will be a woman that will play the leading role on his “sad” stage. If not for a woman, Antonio would have found himself as a hunk of flesh in Shylock’s trophy room. Portia, whose “little body is a-weary of this great world,” uses her intelligence, quick thinking and fortitude to save the love of her own love. She also provides for the love of Jessica and Lorenzo, and let us not forget to mention her spiel on mercy and love at the onset of the trial. My question is why.
When we first meet Portia, one might be tempted to label her as an ordinary rich girl with the same problems that rich heiresses may have today–marriage, wealth and the combination of the two. Isn’t she complaining to her maid of the woes of her father’s wish? The wish that compelled her to marry the man who can choose the correct casket? Portia and Nerissa then go through the various options; might we say that Portia might be suffering from a severe case of capriciousness?
Let’s look a little closer. She bemoans her various suitors because of lack of intelligence and bad habits. She sarcastically describes one as having “neighborly charity,” because he borrows and never repays. It grabs my attention here and earlier that Portia focuses on the virtues of these men and the lack thereof. As we see more of her and hear what she has to say, we find that not only is Portia intelligent, but she understands the importance of mercy. She shrewdly learns, or has learned how to interrelate the two vital concepts in the realm of justice and law.
The combination of intelligence and mercy, as demonstrated by her conduct at Antonio’s trial makes her, I think, one of the most strategic characters in The Merchant of Venice. She understands that when we as humans fight for “justice,” we do in fact forget that our own lives depend on mercy and grace. Portia states, “though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation.” This is a decidedly Christian viewpoint and is not the only example of Portia’s beliefs. She firmly believes in honesty and loyalty, demonstrated with the promise of the ring. What was Shakespeare thinking when he created such a symbol of Christ’s love in Portia? To my thinking, he set her apart from the other characters of the play, as admirable. There is a clear separation between her and her attitude, and the other characters in the play. Where other characters profess some sort of tie to Christianity or Judaism, Portia makes no such profession and outshines them all. This makes their declarations of piety and faith seem hypocritical and unfounded–hence, the ridiculous concept of so-called justice and the “intent and purpose of the law.”
Justice is good and right and has its place. Antonio, one could argue, was saved because of the proper enactment of justice. Though the concept of justice can be interpreted in many different ways, I believe that Shakespeare through comedy showed us just how ridiculously the letter of the law can be perceived. And even though exacting justice is incredibly important, I want to go further. I believe that through Portia, the one character that we don’t ridicule in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare showed us the art of true justice, painted on the canvas of mercy and reconciliation.