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Catalog of the Shakespeare Art Collection  --  Watercolors of Shakespearean Characters 
~ Bastards, Frauds & Tellers of the Truth  ~


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PORTIA in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
by Hannah Tompkins
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Portia Watercolor by Hannah Tompkins

 

Of all Shakespeare's tarnished heroines I think Portia is the most odious.
That she was young and beautiful were accidents of time and genetics; that she was rich was also a turn of fate, (she was the sole heiress to a colossal fortune and princely title) but that she was a fraud, was her own doing.
Her social status permitted her to exercise power over others, and she gloried in it: Nonetheless, this life of wealth and leisure was boring to her:    (Act I sc.ii) 
"By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world."
She was not always kind. In fact, she could be downright nasty, judging from the callous, disdainful remarks she makes about her various suitors.
But Bassanio was willing to overlook such shortcomings... the price was right!
"..a lady richly left,
and she is fair, and fairer than that word
of wondrous virtue.."      ( Act I sc. i)
And so, with a generous loan from his friend Antonio, he makes an impressive show and thru some clever maneuvering, wins her hand. Then comes the news of Antonio's distress regarding payment of the loan and Bassanio hies him back to Venice. Portia grabs this opportunity to break the tedium with fun and games.

Disguised as a lawyer and primed by a professional cousin, she goes to Venice to plead Antonio's case. Accustomed as she is to centerfront-stage, she plays up the starring role. As an encore, she does the much-acclaimed "mercy speech". It's good poetry but does not hide her anti-semitism. (The result of the trial is another comment on Legality vs. Morality.)
She bows and revels in the accolades, heedless of the emotional anguish and torment being suffered by her 'client'. Not until his chest is bared for Shylock's knife does she pull her legal ace.. something about aliens threatening the lives of citizens. With this she realizes the climax of perverted power-satisfaction. Her exploitation of justice and morality were simply means to these ends.

On the surface she is clever, resourceful and sensible; underneath, she is insensitive and selfish, one thing on the outside, another within, like the theme of the three chests.

Bassanio, as he contemplates the three caskets makes this observation:
"So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But being season'd with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil?"      (Act III sc.ii )
Portia too is an 'outward show that deceives the world with ornament'. In a weak moment of self-examination she confesses:
"I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow my own teaching."
And that goes for her "quality of mercy..."


Copyright © 1982 Hannah Tompkins. All rights reserved.

 

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