Is Portia the hero of The Merchant of Venice? Can a woman considered a hero at all? Can Portia even be viewed positively? Julie Hankey, in the essay Victorian Portias: Shakespeare’s Borderline Heroine, reviews how the reception and subsequent performance of Portia evolved through the Victorian era from a disparaged, under appreciated woman to a valued and celebrated character.
Hankey addresses the question of how Portia’s intellect is interpreted in the context of her womanhood. Hankey collated and critiqued commentary on Portia, beginning with Anna Jameson’s book which began the discussion of Shakespeare’s female characters as more than “socially inferior” beings. Prior to Jameson, the critical consensus was that Shakespeare’s women were “slight” compared to his men, and that the women were not truly unique from one another. Jameson lauded Shakespeare for his depiction of women as ideal beings. Though Jameson’s prose was “rhapsodic” or romanticized, Hanley believes she was making subversive claims about Shakespeare’s women beneath that. Jameson praised all of Shakespeare’s women and Hankey believed that the idealization of every woman may have undermined Jameson’s claims of the characters’ individuality and sense of realism. Hazlitt, another scholar, held an opposing viewpoint, that Shakespeare’s women “exist only in their attachment to others.” If the women were solely the sum of their interactions, then empathizing or identifying with substanceless characters would have been nearly impossible. Jameson emphasized the heroism of the women because she believed it would challenge the existing social order.
Moving from Shakespeare’s women as a whole, to Portia specifically, Hankey outlines why Portia drew such harsh societal criticism. The ideal of womanhood was Imogen, from Cymbeline, who embodied “simple piety,” “wifely devotion” and “unobtrusive modesty.” Jameson pushed back on this idea to an extent but to avoid positioning Portia in an un-womanly manner, framed her intellect as inferior to the of men. Portia strays into the intellectual territory of men, and as a result she was often subject to a physical caricature of “mannishness.” Portraying Portia with manly features was one way to reconcile intellect with womanhood.
This is not the only stage tradition that follows Portia; Siddon and Kemble, both actresses in the late 18th to early 19th century, favorably viewed the role of Portia which was considered surprising by their contemporaries. Portia’s character did not fit the stereotype of “woman as a creature relegated entirely by [their] feelings.” Therefore the role of Portia was not seen as a desirable one for an actress. Siddon and Kemble represent a change in female characters being valued for more than emotional scenes. Portia did not adhere to the stereotypical gender roles, and Hankey believes that the Victorian era is when both performers and scholars began to switch from demonizing to appreciating Portia’s typically male traits. Female scholars especially tried to emphasize that Portia’s intellect was not inconsistent with femininity, but this was necessarily cloaked in “gushing endorsement of the conventional ‘womanly woman.’”
Hankey concludes that the perceptions and performance of Portia in the Victorian era were divided by the critics’ gender. Interpretations of the trial scene especially split along gender lines; this is the scene that most obviously displays Portia’s wit, and how the scholars and actors rationalize her intellect is indicative of their overall view of women. The male critics viewed Portia’s “wordplay [as] harmless, a form of feminine adornment” which Hankey deemed misogynistic. The male critics seem to find that the intellect displayed by Portia was inconsistent with what women are capable of so some even concluded that Portia’s defense of Antonia was preplanned by Bellario. The female critics commended the trial scene because they believe it serves as Shakespeare’s proof that intelligence is compatible with womanhood. The “borderline” aspect of Portia is her femininity; her actions were both womanly and unwomanly so she could not be dismissed from womanhood, but rather her intellect has to somehow be reconciled with womanhood. What was not in question for Hankey was Portia’s merit as a character.
Hankey focused on Shakespeare’s female characters as a whole being considered more individual and estimable, as well as Portia’s rationality and wit no longer being considered incompatible with her womanhood. Especially amongst female critics, such as Jameson, who hid their favor for Portia’s intellect behind a staunch defense of her womanhood.