Portia, the Heroine Who Brings in the Happy Ending

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

A characteristic of Shakespeare’s comedies is that lovers unite, and the story ends happily. Portia, the heroine who marries Bassanio, makes the happy ending possible through defeating the villain and uniting lovers. Her wisdom, cleverness, and logic win over men’s. How has Shakespeare created such a strong core female character?

A painting of Portia, an important character in 'The Merchant of Venice'.
Portia is a core character of The Merchant of Venice, without whom the happy ending would not be possible, and the play would turn into a tragedy. (Image: John Everett Millais/Public domain)

Bassanio wants to marry Portia, but he needs to choose the right casket that contains her photo, according to her father’s will. He chooses correctly, and Portia happily marries him. However, Bassanio had to borrow money from his friend Antonio, who gave him the money through a loan from Shylock.

Things got complex when Antonio failed to pay back the loan, and Shylock insisted on getting his vengeance. He had written in the bond that if Antonio failed to pay back the money in due time, Shylock could get a pound of his flesh, from wherever he desired. This is where Portia steps in for the rescue.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The Drama of Ideas

One useful tool for understanding Shakespeare is called the drama of ideas. Here, it helps the reader attend to the larger arguments being carried on between characters. Shylock insists on his bond in his dialogues with different characters. In the trial scene, the Duke asks him how he can expect mercy if he does not show mercy? To which he replies, “What judgment shall I dread doing no wrong?”

Shylock believes he does not need mercy because he has done nothing wrong. He shows some pride in this claim, and Portia will try to use this to win the case later.

Learn more about the Tragic Woman in Macbeth.

Portia’s Judgment

Portrait of Portia who saves Antonio in 'The Merchant of Venice'.
Portia saves Antonio after her attempts to make Shylock show mercy fail. She is forced to treat Shylock with craftiness, rather than charity. (Image: Henry Woods (English, 1846-1921])/Public domain)

Portia enters the court disguised as a young doctor of law, sent by a famous judge who cannot make the journey himself. As soon as she enters, she asks, “Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?”

The question is not posed because she cannot tell which one is which, but to show that in the objective eyes of the law, everybody is the same. This is the justice that Shylock looks for in the whole play. Upon reading the bond, Portia immediately votes for Shylock, but then says, “Then must the Jew be merciful.” Shylock asks why he should be; and Portia replies with the most famous speech of the play, beginning with:

“The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;”

The Plea for Mercy

Portia’s response is directed at Shylock but fits everyone in the play. All characters in the play are after vengeance and bloodshed, showing hatred and paranoia toward each other. Portia’s plea for mercy is, in fact, directed at the whole society and the ideas in the play. Salvation will follow mercy, not justice.

However, Shylock is a non-changing character, and her speech does not impress him that much. He replies, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law.” As he still seeks justice, Portia gives him one last chance to show mercy, when she tells Shylock to have a surgeon standing by, if Antonio bleeds to death. Shylock keeps insisting on the bond and justice.

Learn more about The Merchant of Venice: comedy or tragedy?

Winning the Case

Portia fails to convince Shylock that mercy is the right way. Thus, she tells him that he can get the pound of flesh as promised in the bond, but he cannot shed any blood. According to the law of Venice, if one drop of Christian blood is shed, the government will get all the goods and lands of the person. This stuns Shylock and shows how the pure pursuit of justice leads to one’s own damnation.

Unconditional love and mercy are elements of comedy, while justice and law are elements of tragedy. Portia wins the case, and Shylock cannot get one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Both Christians and Jews act equally unmercifully in the play, which shows Shakespeare’s idea of God is hardly a strictly orthodox concept. This is also evident in the more sympathetic readings of Shylock in the play.

The Happy Ending

Bassanio (John Farmanesh-Bocca) and Portia (Julie Hughett) from the Pacific Repertory Theatre production of 'The Merchant of Venice'.
Portia and Bassanio get married, and two other couples are also joined in marriage at the end of the play. (Image: Smatprt/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The play ends in Belmont, where three couples are joined in marriage. The wedding rings replace all the previous symbols and representations of the play, like the caskets and the pound of flesh. However, Antonio is left alone, and Shylock’s misery lingers after his wealth is given to Antonio and his daughter and her husband. The play is categorized as a comedy due to its comic elements, but the tragic elements play their bold role too.

Without Portia, the court would have had a different outcome, and the play’s ending would have changed dramatically.

Common Questions about Portia in The Merchant of Venice

Q: Who is the real hero in The Merchant of Venice?

Portia is the heroine who saves Antonio from losing one pound of his flesh, leads her lover Bassanio to the personality transformation that he seeks, and makes a happy ending possible for The Merchant of Venice.

Q: Does Portia save Antonio’s life?

Yes. Portia dresses up as a judge and attends the court where Antonio’s trial is held. She convinces Shylock not to cut out one pound of Antonio’s flesh.

Q: How does Portia convince Shylock in the court?

Portia first tries to encourage Shylock to forgive Antonio. When he insists on justice and law, she tells him that he can get the one pound of flesh only if Antonio does not bleed. Bleeding is not mentioned in the bond, and she uses it to stop Shylock.

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