Shylock Character the Merchant Venice
Portia and Queen Elizabeth:
Through the trenches of the microcosm of play, no character serves as much semblance to Elizabeth Tudor as Portia. I agree so, and forthwith draw more comparisons between her and a contemporaneous learned Renaissance woman going by her terrific rhetorical skills, markedly in the trial scene. By all measure, Elizabeth Tudor was a learned woman, possibly of the highest caliber in all of England during her lifetime. The associations between Portia and Elizabeth transcends the similarity in their use of rhetoric, to the extravagant use of logic and dialectic statements to efface Shylock’s claim to the bond, statements only learned individuals at the time could muster.
It wasn’t uncommon to find learned women in the Renaissance period. Alas, the Countess of Richmond, the Lady Margaret, who also is Elizabeth’s great-grandmother was sufficiently learned. Same as her step-sister Mary, and Lady Jane Grey. Of particular reference is Lady Jane Grey who challenged Mary Tudor’s claim to the throne for twelve days, only to succumb to a demise on the scaffold. She was averred by notable Cambridge scholars to take an elevated position in the highest cadre of learned women in England at the time (Neale 54).
Commerce as a language was employed throughout the play to circumscribe Portia, she defined herself with the language as did others of her. This trait while amply decipherable, has been disputed by critics who are of the opinion that either Shylock or Antonio are more deserving of the unique depiction. So much that a review of existing literature shows reticence amongst critics in applying the depiction to Portia. In a striking example, Szatek describes Portia as a “sovereign,” a “vigorous tradeswoman,” and a “successful merchant,” yet fails short of describing Portia as the merchant of the play’s title (335-348). Geary in his explicating article portends that Portia “ultimately proves herself the most adept businessman of them all” (68). Ultimately, the play does provide what might be an answer to the ironic question by Portia-“Which is the merchant here… ” (4.1.172) (Pelt, 2009).
It is Portia’s pivotal actions that prove even more so than her commercial language of herself and which others use to describe her, keeping to the apothegm that action speak louder than words. Portia keeps the upbeat flow of the play. Portia navigates the double plot: as she secures her marriage to her favorite; intervenes in the trial to save the life of Antonio (and to preserve her marriage); punishes Shylock; and restores Antonio’s ships. Of her most engaging qualities are her skills in trading and negotiating which outshone those of Antonio, Shylock and even Bassanio. Grippingly, Szatek cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “merchandise,” which is an earlier synonym of “commerce,” as the trading of numerous goods and services (326) (Pelt, 2009). This best describes Portia’s mastery of exchanging goods and services that include; a life of leisure in Belmont for Bassanio, and a proficient legal mind to save the life of her husband’s friend – in exchange for loyalty, companionship, and stability; all commodities that hold value to her.
I affirm that another similarity between Portia and Elizabeth Tudor, is etched in the financial prudence that they both explicated. Elizabeth Tudor is famous for counting the coins in her realm in an inspiring attempt to change the fortunes of her country which was at the time deep in debt. Neale asserts that Elizabeth made a series of cuts in the regular expenditure of her court, to the tune of 135,000 pounds per year; creating a surplus which helped liquidate her debts (296). Much of Elizabeth’s admirable reputation stems from her frugality and stanch financial acuity (101). In agreement, Wallace MacCaffrey maintains that one of the principal pillars of Elizabeth’s form of government was the unrelenting control of the state’s finances (382). The premise that wielding power have an unswerving relationship with stiff control of money flow is one that Elizabeth upheld, and was clearly understood by Portia. Szatek holds an opposing view, contending that Shakespeare, through Portia and Belmont, sought to accentuate that “sovereigns ought not to manipulate commerce to correspond to their own economic and political ends, such as Elizabeth I’s crafty authorization of piracy and of the slave trade…” (349) (Pelt, 2009).
King James, the successor to Elizabeth, in his book of advice for his son, intended to enshrine the patriarchal authority of the husband. His famous quote on marriage is that, “Ye are the head, she is your body: it is your office to command, and hers to obey; but yet with such a sweet harmony, as she should be as ready to obey, as ye to command.” The law did not offer any more relief to wifely inferiority than King James’ quote. A curative exposition on the subject comes from one foreign observer whose comment was that, “wives in England are entirely in the power of their husbands, their lives only excepted.” Marriage for women meant complete loss of control over personal property, including clothes and jewelry; husbands could act as they will with the effects of their wives. This contemporaneous norm is portrayed in the play when Portia capitulates her wealth to her beloved Bassanio: in her words, “Myself and what is mine to you and yours is now converted” (Joseph & Kirkland, 2003).
By the play’s account, Portia had tremendous wealth. Her father had left a clause in his will, dictating that by picking the correct casket, a daring suitor would be deserving of her hand in marriage. While the number suitors were not slim by any measure, Portia had consciously made a choice of her prospective partner in the person of Bassanio, and with her friend Nerissa (in Act three Scene two), gave helpful clues to Bassanio so he could make the right pick. These clues include, “fancy dies,” representing the attractiveness of silver and gold; and “dies.” This event displayed the independent inclinations of Portia. Furthermore, her observant and evasive attributes provides a vehicle for her into the male universe, which she must enter to get Bassanio, “when we are both accoutered like young men I have within my mind a thousand raw tricks” (Thompson, 2009).
Succinct descriptions of Portia include intelligence and wit, but they may not always accurately describe the quality of her actions. In Act two Scene one, when the African prince of Morocco graces her presence as a suitor, he had to prove his viability for the test when he says, “mislike me not for my complexion” and “let us make an incision to prove who’s blood is reddest.” Contradictory tendencies are suggested by some of Portia statements and actions, possibly to remind the audience of her human failings or to extricate the contrasting nature of humans.
Shakespeare’s reason for defining Portia’s character by these intricacies is largely unknown, but he does bring to bear the gender issues that defined the Elizabethan era. Notable instances include Gratziano’s metaphorical label of his rings as “poultry”; and Bassanio’s statement of him ascribing more importance to Antonio than to his wife, “but life itself, my wife and all the world are not esteemed above thy life.” The innate ability of Shakespearean literary pieces to connect with several divides in his audience, is perhaps the most endearing attribute of the brilliant author. It is possible that he created a complex and multi-faceted character, in his drive to strike a chord with each member of the audience. Certainly though, it is this two-faced quality of Portia that has fueled and enthused debate (Thompson, 2009).
Portia’s reference to known characters enters a new shift in Shylocks comparison of Portia and the biblical character Daniel. This is suitably related to Elizabeth I personal comparison to Daniel according to Holinshed’s Chronicle, in how she stopped to pray at the Tower during her coronation procession (Levin 131). Portia, show comparisons again with Elizabeth, in presenting herself as a submissive woman who surrenders herself to her lord (Bassanio after he had chosen the right chest). Nonetheless, after marriage had been consummated, she declares herself as an equal half in her spousal relationship and dresses up like a man, in the next scene, “to do justice in a high court of law.” Hence, in same likeness as Queen Elizabeth, she gainfully displays feminine attributes of weakness, in a ploy to assert her masculine prerogative over a repelling caucus of men (Marcus 144-5).
Kitch’s explanation of national politics, seeks to establish a clever connection that, if Portia were indeed a merchant and her language and actions support the description, then she had legitimate right to protect her goods and services from threat. Similarly, if Elizabeth was the merchant-in-chief of her demesne, then she was duty bound to protect her people and assets from both foreign and domestic threats in all possible ways, inclusive of “manipulating commerce.” In this regard, I maintain that Shylock does not represent usury in the play, but as a generic or most astutely, Catholic threat to Elizabeth’s…