The Merchant Of Venice: Comparison Of Portia And Antonio In Merchant Of Venice

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At the beginning of The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents Portia as a powerless character, and Antonio as one of the most powerful. However, by the end of the play, their positions begin to change, and Portia seems to hold the most control, whereas Antonio’s seems to deteriorate.

The first time Portia is introduced into the play she is described as a “lady richly left…fair… [and a woman] Of wondrous virtues” by Bassanio. This is significant because in the 16th century when the play was written by Shakespeare, women were often treated as objects as if they were below men. The fact that Bassanio talks about Portia as “richly left” before her “virtues” suggests to the audience that Bassanio seems to only be interested in Portia for the money, rather than her personality. This would have been usual for the audience of the time, as this was the popular stereotype for women. Shakespeare also gives an insight into Portia’s life, showing that although she is “richly left” and has money, she is still thought of as a powerless object. An example of this is when Bassanio compares Portia to Jason’s “golden fleece”. Here Shakespeare shows the reader that Bassanio’s idea of Portia is the fact that she’s a fortune, rather than a person with wonderful “virtues” as Bassanio aforementioned.

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Compared to Portia at the beginning of the play, Antonio is presented as a powerful character by Shakespeare instantly. The first point that indicates this starts from the first line when Antonio does “know not why [he] is sad”- and is immediately reassured by his friends Solanio and Salarino. Here it is clear that Shakespeare is trying to show the fact that Antonio is well respected and connected with the people around him- he is popular. However, from the beginning, it is clear Portia is lonely compared to Antonio- whilst he has many supportive friends, she only has one, “her waiting-woman Nerissa”. This idea is further presented by Shakespeare in the locations that the two characters are situated in- Antonio is shown to live in Venice, “a public place” full of people, whereas Portia lives in Belmont, a fictional island, where the main attraction seems to be “[her own] house”. Here Shakespeare not only shows the theme of power between the characters, and the fact that Antonio has more, with his connections and the people around him but also the theme of loneliness- Portia lives isolate on an island in her house with only her waiting-woman, Nerissa.

However, one common factor that Shakespeare demonstrates between Portia and Antonio at the beginning of the play is the fact that they are both Christians. We know this from the evidence that Jews were a minority in the 1600s and thought to be evil, so as a result forced to wear small red hats- in order to not only make them identifiable but also cast them out of society. The reason this is significant is that being Christian conferred power at the time- meaning that although Antonio and Portia both have varying control at the start of the play, the fact that they are Christian gives them more power than that of “a Jew” such as Shylock. This point is important for Antonio as the play progresses because his power loss is a result of a Jew.

As The Merchant of Venice progresses Shakespeare begins to show a shift in power for Portia as a character, and she starts to be shown as intelligent and quick-witted. An early example of this wittiness from Portia is when she is recounting the stories of the suitors that have come to see her, making various facetious and sarcastic remarks, such as “God made him and therefore let him pass for a man.” Here Shakespeare shows the audience Portia’s personality- and that though she is getting married in ways she cannot control, she still has her own educated opinion, something a large number of the audience at the time would not have known. This immediately empowers Portia’s character from the start of the play as she is shown to be breaking gender normalities for the time, giving hints at a good education, unlike many of the women in the audience. This point is further developed when Bassanio must immediately leave, in order to help Antonio in the court of law against Shylock, and Porta dresses as “a young and learned doctor” called “Balthazar” to come and assist him. This indicates to the reader that there is more to Portia than meets the eye- and the fact that she has the knowledge to become a “doctor” makes her character seem more powerful. For the audience of the time, this would have been very unusual, since women were banned from working in the professions as they were regarded as a more helpless sex in society in the 1600s. This further empowers Portia as a character by showing the audience that she, as a woman, can do anything a man can do- and according to the outcome, perhaps even better.

Compared to Portia, Act 4 Scene 1 appears to be the scene in which Antonio’s power is shown to shift downwards by Shakespeare- his fate is now being decided by his rival throughout the play, “the Jew” Shylock, and he seems to accept it. “I pray you to think your question with the Jew” is an example of this. Here, it is shown that Antonio is now speaking of Shylock as above him – “you question with” is contrasting to Antonio being in power over Shylock throughout the play, and presumably his life, and he is now aware that Shylock holds all the authority- and is despite this, to some extent abusing him- trying to make sure Shylock does not have all the influence, by putting his own power at risk. This is similar to Portia in a manner- she is also putting her power at risk by dressing up as Balthazar and fighting for Antonio in the court of law- when not permitted during this period. This shows the audience the way Antonio’s power as deceased, with him, just grasping on to anything he can say- compared to Portia whose power has increased.

Therefore, throughout Act 4 Scene 1, Portia is now presented as one of the most powerful people in the play by Shakespeare- her only adversary being Shylock. However, she also overcomes Shylock, during the dramatic court scene where she attempts to stop Antonio’s execution – “take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond”, but then when her offer is refused falls down on Shylock with ruthlessness and spite. An example of this is when she says” the Jew should have all justice… nothing but the penalty” and forces Shylock into an un-escapable corner. Here Portia is being presented as merciless, and the use of “[he] should have” shows the audience that Portia has maintained control over the situation, which reflects on her intelligence and power in the play. Compared to Antonio, who had already accepted his fate and was “well prepar’d” for death, Portia holds all the power in the court, whereas all Antonio’s power is lost. However, this point also shows hypocrisy in Portia’s character, as although she says “Then must the Jew be merciful,” in order to save Antonio’s life, she is fierce and merciless against Shylock when she discovers how to beat him, an action that leads to Shylocks worst outcome, becoming a Christian. This would have been surprising for a woman of the time- Portia is yet again breaking gender normalities and abusing her power- in a way the audience would have never seen a woman act before, showing that women could be just as brutal as men, or just as smart.

Although Antonio is freed during this scene, Shakespeare makes it clear to the audience that Antonio will never be as powerful and influential as he once was. By the end of the play, he stands “indebted” to Portia for freeing him and this shows the reader the loss of power that Antonio has experienced- he has been saved by a woman. This is entirely clear to the audience when Antonio is made to [QOUTATION, ring]. This would have been very embarrassing at the time, for women were considered as less than men, and by the end of the play, Antonio is presented to be left with less than he started it off with- his “dear friend” Bassanio, another character who Portia has control over.

Therefore, comparing Shakespeare’s presentation of Portia and Antonio in The Merchant of Venice shows a clear pattern- Whilst Portia is introduced into the play as a standard non-powerful woman of the 1600s whose main characteristics are said to be “richly left” and “fair”, Antonio is presented as powerful- he is a Christian man, with many friends reassuring him about his emotions at the beginning of the play. However, over the course of the play, Shakespeare begins to show a shift in influence between them, as Portia is shown to be intelligent, breaking gender normalities, whilst Antonio is presented as weak, allowing Shylock to take full control over him, and accepting his fate. Overall, although Antonio is a man and should be powerful, and Portia is a woman and should be lesser than a man, it seems through the course of the play their positions have been switched by Shakespeare, in an attempt to show the audience of the time that women can have just as much influence as a man, if not, even more, a concept that still applies in today’s society.


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