She giveth and she taketh away:
Portia, masculinity, and power.
Christine Hoff Kraemer
Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice exemplifies a principle that is as unfortunately true in our time as it was in his – he who has money also has love, sex, and above all, power. In this case, the use of ‘he’ is deliberate; ‘she,’ in the Elizabethan era, rarely had either financial independence or much control over the course of her life. Portia, the deceitful heroine of the play, is a major exception. To put it bluntly, Portia is enormously rich. This unique position allows her to meddle in the affairs of the unsuspecting and somewhat dim male characters, and eventually gives her unprecedented power of self-determination. However, the play is more than a tale of feminine wiles overcoming male dullness of wit. Portia’s wealth and intelligence may fuel her successes in marriage and the courtroom, but in each case it is her ability to usurp traditionally masculine roles that guarantees her victory. As Portia exploits the codependence of wealth, masculinity, and public power in her society, she becomes the only woman in the play who consistently controls her own destiny,
Before we move to the main argument, there is a question to be answered: what did it mean to be masculine or feminine in the Elizabethan era? Russ McDonald’s The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare is an excellent source in making this distinction. According to McDonald, women were expected to concern themselves with marriage and motherhood only, and to submit themselves to their fathers and then their husbands in all ways. Considered “weaker vessels,” women were not held to have either “strength or constancy of mind.” Subordination, submission, and skill in caregiving were valued in women, and they were expected to keep their opinions to themselves (not be “froward,” or “shrewd”). Men, on the other hand, were expected to be both stronger and more rational than women, and thus better able to make decisions. Consequently, all financial and business matters were generally dealt with by men. Some documents suggest that men were usually aggressive and somewhat prone to tyranny; “An Homily on the State of Matrimony,” quoted in McDonald, vehemently warns men against beating their wives, which was apparently a not-uncommon practice. In short, femininity in Shakespeare’s time seems to have meant submission and gentleness, while masculinity was characterized by strength and both social and financial power.
These assumptions are clearly present in Shakespeare’s work. In Merchant, financial language and romantic language are inextricably linked, suggesting that money is a source of both power and sexual desirability, particularly for males. The opening scene depicts Bassanio asking Antonio for money so that he may woo the beautiful and wealthy Portia. Bassanio is penniless and, it seems, made weak, unattractive, and perhaps less masculine by his poverty.
. . . Many Jasons come in quest of her.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift
That I should questionless be fortunate. (1.2.172-6)
Without money, Bassanio believes himself an unfit suitor for Portia, unable to match any of her other, richer suitors in sexual appeal. It is doubly significant that though he speaks of love and sexual competition with other men, his language is loaded with financial terms. In lieu of ‘success,’ he uses the word ‘thrift,’ now commonly used to indicate the wise use of money, and his last word puns on ‘fortune.’
Portia, however, is a far more complex personality than Bassanio’s superficial description suggests. Her evaluation of her suitors is both articulate and scathing; Portia deconstructs each man with a kind of clinical precision, seeming to take particular pleasure in questioning their masculinity, commenting scornfully of the French lord, “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man” (1.3.47). This quote reveals far more about Portia than about her unfortunate suitor. Portia’s conception of masculinity seems to have little to do with mere anatomy. The French lord, she says, though he possesses the outward signs of masculinity, plays a man’s part so poorly that only God’s intent allows him to be considered one. Moreover, she apparently believes herself to have superior judgement of what makes a truly masculine man. Significantly, her effortless assumption of masculine dress in Act IV suggests that her confidence in her opinions may well be correct.
Three months later in the play’s timeline, the newly potent Bassanio successfully chooses the leaden coffin and wins Portia’s hand. Portia’s congratulatory speech, though submissive and feminine on the surface, contains a number of contrasting masculine undertones. Considering our earlier glimpse of Portia’s privately sharp and thoroughly unladylike tongue, this casts doubt on the sincerity of her effort to play the traditionally subordinate wife. Though her language is flowery and deferential, Portia refers to herself repeatedly in ways that, outside of the context of her speech, would have made any Elizabethan suitor uncomfortable:
. . . But now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself; . . . (3.2.167-9)
Portia was not the ‘lady’ of the house but its ‘lord,’ not the servants’ ‘mistress’ but their ‘master.’ Though Portia breaks the pattern by calling herself ‘queen’ as opposed to ‘king,’ the image she paints has connotations of masculine control and dominance. The archetype of the feminine caregiver is entirely absent.
Portia’s manner of speech, unlike that of the other female characters, shares a common quality with the men’s – it is heavily laden with financial language. In her dramatic self-offering to Bassanio, she wishes herself
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. (3.2.154-7)
Portia throws around numbers as easily as she later distributes her money; “thousand” and “ten thousand” come naturally from her mouth in a way that they cannot from a woman of smaller means. Further, she puns deftly on ‘account,’ using it both to mean Bassanio’s estimation of her and her own potential value. In both cases, the term more appropriate for appraising a house or a piece of jewelry than a potential wife. Portia continues:
. . . But the full sum of me
Is sum of something which, to term in gross,
Is an unlessoned girl, . . . (3.2.157-9)
Once again, Portia uses words that are primarily appropriate for financial or numerical matters. She refers to “the full sum” of herself, and adds, “to term in gross.” Though by the latter phrase she means “to describe it fully,” the phrase puns on “gross” as in twelve dozen, a rate at which merchandise is commonly sold, and “gross” as in “gross profit,” or profit without reductions. Portia’s language reveals how comfortable she is in the masculine, financially responsible world, and implicitly, her reluctance to leave it.
Shortly thereafter, Portia’s speech takes a more suspicious turn. The fact that Portia has survived and prospered since her father’s death suggests that she is highly competent in financial matters, especially those relating to her property; her speech further demonstrates her intelligence and eloquence. Thus, her description of herself is highly questionable:
. . . an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractisèd,
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. (3.2.159-65)
Portia is hardly ‘unlessoned’ or ‘unschooled’; her bizarre references to herself as bred for intelligence and possessed of a “gentle spirit” make her sound as if she were a domestic animal, ready and pleased to be taught. Indeed, Portia has thus far shown herself to be far from obedient to male instruction. In Act I, we see her jokingly plotting with Nerissa to influence the coffin game by baiting an alcoholic suitor with Rhenish; Act III finds her servants singing Bassanio a song in which a number of the words quite unsubtly rhyme with ‘lead.’ Nevertheless, Portia cannot blatantly break her father’s decree. Despite her apparently unfeminine personality, Portia is still a woman. The masculine roles she assumes are won by subtle manipulation or financial backing, not by brute force. In this case, her intelligence serves her well in her pursuit of Bassanio. Portia manipulates the test for her own purposes, thus assuming the decision-making power her father had by law and deliberately denied her.
Portia ends her speech on a somewhat ominous note, though the lovestruck Bassanio (gold ducats dancing in his eyes) appears not to notice.
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 . . . (3.2.170-3)
Once again, Portia subtly assumes a male role – she gives herself away, a duty that is usually reserved for a bride’s father. Though it is unclear if Portia already plans to test Bassanio’s love, she has (we must assume deliberately) left herself a loophole for reclaiming her power. Should Bassanio lose the ring, she insinuates, he might lose the wife and property that came with it as well. However, later in the scene Portia seems hardly to have given any power away. Though her verbal nod to time-honored feminine submission has pleased her audience, it is she who offers the money to repay Antonio’s bond, saying,
Double six thousand, and then treble that,
Before a friend of this description
Shall lose a hair thorough Bassanio’s fault. (3.2.299-301)
Though she has just pledged all her property to Bassanio, it is clear that Portia plans to retain control of her wealth. This move also allows Portia to de-emphasize Antonio’s love for Bassanio, since Bassanio’s behavior suggests that he may put his friend before his wife. Portia can give thirty-six thousand ducats for Bassanio in comparison to Antonio’s three, and her financial power and desirability is therefore superior. Once again, Portia’s money has allowed her to infiltrate the primarily male world of finance, and in doing so utilize a path to Bassanio’s love to which previously only Antonio had had access.
Portia’s scenes are not the only ones in which money, power, and masculinity are linked. At the end of Act II, Shylock’s impulsive daughter Jessica flees her repressive father’s house to elope with Lorenzo, in the process robbing her father of two thousand ducats and two precious stones. Shylock’s cries of rage, taken up by the mocking village boys as “His stones, his daughter, and his ducats!” (2.9.24), demonstrate Shylock’s loss of power and masculinity as the result of the theft. Particularly suggestive is the castration imagery in the passage – Jessica has taken Shylock’s ‘stones,’ i.e., his testicles. Shylock, rather than being the clever moneylender of earlier acts, is rendered a babbling and impotent idiot. As Shylock will later insist in the trial scene with “you take my life / When you do take the means whereby I live,” (4.1.371-2) his very existence, as well as his identity as a moneylender and a man, rests upon his wealth.
It seems likely that Portia is aware of this connection too. Discontent to let the men manage affairs, and perhaps unhappy at Bassanio’s too-quick departure, she contrives to dress in men’s clothing and appear as a judge at Antonio’s trial. Once again, her wealth serves her well, providing her money for travel as well as an appropriate male wardrobe. Significantly, though many of Shakespeare’s heroines dress as men, Portia’s disguise is assumed for purposes other than obtaining an erotic advantage over her love interest. Her manipulation of Shylock is efficient and at times, brutal; she shows none of the mercy that she so strongly recommends, leaving the Jew penniless and even forcing him to convert to Christianity. Though she takes her place in the courtroom by deception, Portia’s tactics border on coercion as she insists that Shylock take his pound of flesh – hardly a feminine tactic.
Portia’s final but most effective assumption of a masculine role seems to take place spontaneously. Disguised as a male, and having used the traditionally masculine study of law to save Antonio, she suddenly asks Bassanio for his engagement ring as a token of gratitude. The symbolism here is complex. Should he give the ring, Bassanio also gives away his wife and his property, and demonstrates that he values his friendship with Antonio more than his marriage. The ring is also symbolic of sexual union. By removing the ring (his wife’s body, or more specifically her genitals) from his own (phallic) finger and allowing another man to place it on his, Bassanio gives the other man license to have sexual intercourse with his wife. However, in this case “the other man” is Portia. By receiving the ring, Portia takes on the male sexual role. Bassanio has essentially given Portia permission to have intercourse with herself, inadvertently granting her control over her own body, as well as returning the property and power that she gave with the ring. Thus, Portia has cleverly exploited Bassanio's failure of her test of loyalty, and exacted punishment by withdrawing whatever nominal control she had planned to give him. Oddly enough, at the end of the play Portia has become the epitome of the traditionally autonomous male – her body is her own, she is financially independent, and she has more social power than any of the male characters.
Though Portia’s empowerment may be a triumph for Elizabethan feminism, in a modern feminist context it falls short. Portia is allowed to be powerful only when she seizes a masculine role that should not be hers, as when she chooses her own husband and then hoodwinks him out of a husband's traditional authority. In the finance-focused Venice, a man of Portia’s wealth would automatically be granted enormous social prestige and power. Portia, however, wields power despite her sex, not regardless of it. Though Portia is a strong, intelligent, and sometimes vicious character, in her society it is not acceptable for her to be a strong, intelligent, vicious woman. Sadly, Portia’s public image must remain that of her speech in Act III. Though she will have ultimate control over herself and her husband, she still must call herself “an unlessoned girl,” hiding her true authority under a thin mask of submission. Ironically, it is only when Portia dons a disguise that we see her as she truly is – a shrewd, calculating judge, willing to convict and sentence not only the inadequate suitor or the much-abused Jew, but also her own unsuspecting husband.