Shakespeare’s Portia is not a feminist; rather she is a ‘radical’ feminist—understanding gender as the cause of her oppression.
Portia is in a unique locale with her position as a single incredibly wealthy female without a male reigning over her. Although she has her fathers will prohibit her choice for marriage – Portia remains a character with fierce autonomy and an astonishing sense of self.
Portia is typically lauded as feminist in a male dominated society; however, the opposite view can also be taken. Portia’s most prominent moment as a successful, intelligent, rational female comes in the courtroom scene when she is dressed as a man. What would be a moment of success for feminine wit and wiles instead is transformed into the opposite. Portia must don a cloak of masculinity in order to speak in the courtroom that much is clear. The Venetian court system did not allow female lawyers, nor was there educational institutions in place that allowed this as well. However, Portia as a female takes it upon herself to ‘fix’ the problems the men cannot fix, taking no credit.
Is Portia a feminist? She is shrewd and calculating, and does not exhibit similar characteristics of other female characters in Shakespeare. It is difficult to label her, as a feminist because her destiny is firmly in the hands of the patriarchal system around her, and instead of fighting the system; she manipulates it for her own self-interest.
Maybe Portia could in fact be labeled a ‘radical feminist’. Defined by Angela Caravella as someone who believes their oppression is solely based on their gender and its depiction as inferior, radical feminism seems to fight in with Portia’s character. She refers to herself as, “lord/ of this fair mansion, master of my servants” (3.2.167-9), instead of lady and mistress, understanding the gendered differences. Portia comprehends she cannot be in charge of her house as the lady, because that assumes there remains a lord. Since her father’s death, Portia is in control—and to be in control she must be the ‘lord’. However, she is only ‘radical’ in that she understands her gender to be the source of her oppression. Portia does not present as an individual looking to fight against social norms and further the female cause, rather she looks to fight against her own personal oppressions.
She successfully manipulates those around her to end the play with more independence than she began with. By absorbing Shylock’s wealth, Portia in fact is able to increase and remain sovereign over her inheritance. She begins the play a prisoner to her father’s will, and ends as independent as she can be. In terms of changing her destiny and fate, Portia could claim to be the ultimate merchant at the end of the play: the true Merchant of Venice.
Angela Caravella, Influences of the Radical Feminist Perspective in The Merchant of Venice, Cedar Crest Press, 2005.