Portia and Shylock lead such vastly different lives that their stories can easily be divided into two completely separate plays altogether. The two stories do intertwine and the characters do eventually come face to face, but only in an obviously disadvantageous circumstance for Shylock. Certainly, the antagonized character is never seen under a positive light. He is commonly – if not always – referred to as “The Jew” and evidently in a significantly lower social tier than Portia or any of her counterparts. Even so, the fact that Shylock is a self-governing Jewish male provides him with greater agency than Portia, whose choice has been taken away by none other than her dead, Christian father. I guess you could say that Portia’s father is the ultimate “Dead White Guy,” but I digress.
This painting, titled “Portia and Shylock, from Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’” by Edward Alcock depicts the characters’ intersecting lives during the climax of the play – the trial. Despite Portia’s male transformation, her body is intensely sexualized with the rich, beckoning pop of red against the otherwise monochromatic background. Although her attempts to appear masculine are somewhat successful – the wig, her liberation from her dress and corset – the shadowing emphasizes the presence of her breasts as well as the obvious lack of a penis. Her sinewy hands, downcast eyes, and bold posture exude confidence, but Portia’s exposed figure highlights her inability to escape the trap of womanhood in a deeply patriarchal society.
There’s no doubt that Shylock has been handed the short end of the stick in this painting, the play, and the trial. However, Portia’s tragedy remains constant throughout the play as well. Her first line, after all, is of how “[her] little body is aweary of this great world” (I.2, 1). The only way she is able to gain any kind of agency in the world aside from her immense inheritance is by transforming into a man. And even this slight leverage is used to help her husband and his friend. The “choice” taken away by her father isn’t regained after a suitor finally chooses the “correct” chest in the game for marriage. Portia is a compliant, Christian woman in a patriarchal society, which means that her “choice” will never be fully returned to her unless it’s in a jest. This isn’t to say that Portia isn’t selfish, racist, or antisemitic, but she is ultimately trapped in a tragedy of her own. In fact, the only moment she has leverage over her husband, who was chosen through opening a box of lead at the will of her father, is when she uses her male, lawyer identity to extract her ring from him. This, simply to make him promise that he will swear to “nevermore break an oath with [her]” (V.1, 249), which is just another way of saying he will always stay by her side.
Even though I’m not a huge fan of Portia myself, I do feel bad for her because she’s not even aware of her situation. She is fully convinced that in finding her husband, her weariness of the world has melted away for good. Ignorance is bliss, and Portia is blissful to say the least.