The Merchant of Venice

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Portia Character Analysis

A beautiful, clever, and wealthy noblewoman who lives in the country estate of Belmont, outside Venice. Portia is bound by a clause in her father's will, which obligates her to marry whoever solves the so-called riddle of the caskets, by choosing the correct chest from one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. After despairing over a parade of suitors whom she finds distasteful, Portia does get to marry her true love, Bassanio, who happily makes the correct choice. She also saves Antonio's life, during his trial with Shylock, dressed up as a lawyer named Balthazar. For centuries, Portia was admired as an ideal of feminine virtue. However, many modern critics have pointed out that Portia, though seemingly a genius and a perfect wife, regularly displays a vicious prejudice toward non-Christians and foreigners.

Portia Quotes in The Merchant of Venice

The The Merchant of Venice quotes below are all either spoken by Portia or refer to Portia. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Simon & Schuster edition of The Merchant of Venice published in 2009.
Act 1, scene 2 Quotes
When he is best, he is a little worse than a man; and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 1.2.88-89
Explanation and Analysis:

As Portia and her handmaiden Nerissa discuss many of the suitors which are striving to marry her, Portia does not attempt to fabricate her opinions with any false positivity or pretense. She even compares the Duke of Saxony's nephew (one of her suitors) to an animal, introducing this play's focus on human and animal categories, and the arbitrary way we can decide who and who isn't a "man" or a "beast." Portia's suitors represent many of the world's ethnicities, races, and nations; in her opinions towards these men, we first see the stereotyping and classification that will pervade the play's action. 

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I dote on his very absence.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Bassanio
Page Number: 1.2.300
Explanation and Analysis:

After detailing her many suitors, and revealing her dislike of their behaviors and appearances, Portia declares to Nerissa that she will remain chaste as the goddess Diana, unless one of her suitors manages to win her in the way her father ordered before his death. Portia claims "I dote on his very absence," in reference to all of her potential suitors. 

Yet, after Portia makes this extravagant claim, Nerissa reminds her of Bassanio; surely Bassanio was deserving, according to Nerissa. Portia does indeed remember Bassanio, and agrees that he was the suitor she preferred most. We thus begin to see a possible relief from the play's current aura of banality and absence.

Act 2, scene 1 Quotes
Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun.
Related Characters: Prince of Morocco (speaker), Portia
Page Number: 2.1.1-2
Explanation and Analysis:

The Prince of Morocco's first words to Portia are an earnest request to refrain from judging his physical appearance -- specifically, his dark "complexion," the physical aspect tied to racial and social categorization. He has clearly faced prejudice and dehumanization before, and so immediately apologizes for himself in the face of society's disapproval. But although the prince begins with this entreaty, he will adopt a more defensive and affirmative stance by the end of his speech: "I would not change this hue, / Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen." Here, the prince echoes Skylock's conflicting confidence and concerns over discrimination, suggesting that this process of adapting to stereotyping extends through the play's different forms of categorization and separation.

 

Act 3, scene 2 Quotes
If he lose, he makes a swan-like end,
Fading in music.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Bassanio
Page Number: 3.2.46-47
Explanation and Analysis:

While Bassanio chooses between the lead, silver, and gold caskets to hopefully win Portia, Portia leads other members of her household in song, which will either provide Bassanio with "a swan-like end, / Fading with music" or will surround Bassanio's victory with appropriate fanfare. In this play, music will reappear in the context of Lorenzo and Jessica's moonlit love; music serves as an indicator of feelings which require a higher register in order to be truly expressed. Portia also relies on animal imagery, which reappears to either further denigrate characters such as Shylock or further elevate figures such as her ideal suitor Bassanio.

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engender'd in the eyes,
With gazing fed; and fancy dies
In the cradle, where it lies.
Let us all ring fancy's knell;
I'll begin it – Ding, dong, bell.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 3.2.65-73
Explanation and Analysis:

The song which Portia leads, while Bassanio is pondering and making his voice between the three caskets, is appropriately focused on true love, or "fancy." According to the song's words, love begins with visual cues or  "in the eyes" -- which the Prince of Morocco knew as well, when he urged Portia to refrain from judging him based on his appearance (as he knew she was apt to do). Besides the song's content, the mere fact that Portia is fostering this music confirms that Bassanio is her suitor of choice; we are inclined to compare Portia's reaction to his suit to her earlier reactions to prior suitors, and we can measure the extent of her approval by this comparison.

Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
I never knew so young a body with so old a head.
Related Characters: Duke of Venice (speaker), Portia
Page Number: 4.1.164-165
Explanation and Analysis:

In his letter to the court's judge, Doctor Bellario describes the young lawyer who will be replacing him. This lawyer is Portia in disguise-- a fact which the audience can realize but Bassanio and the rest of the court cannot. This description of Portia, then, deals with multiple layers of deception; it is associated with Portia's deception as a male lawyer and this supposed disguise of wisdom and maturity within a young body. 

In the crucial court scene, Portia will indeed live up to this weighty description; she delivers an eloquent, passionate speech about the power of mercy and also manages to use details of law and reason to spare Antonio's life. She lives up to the disguise she is inhabiting, temporarily transforming into an accomplished lawyer when the opportunity presents itself to her.

Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Shylock, Antonio
Page Number: 4.1.176
Explanation and Analysis:

As Portia is pretending to be a young lawyer, she asks one of the most simple yet central questions of he play: who is the Jew, and who is the merchant? This suggests that Jews are so defined by their religious and ethnic identities that their Jewishness obfuscates their professional roles; thus, we see the play's prejudices. More broadly, though, this moment captures the importance of societal functions in constructing an individual's identity. A person's identity is always somewhat questionable and ambiguous because it only exists in relation to other phenomena and systems of exchange larger than any one person. Arguably, Shylock is only the dehumanized "Jew" because society has forced him to play that role, while Antonio has been able to inhabit the more socially-approved role of "merchant."

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.
'T is mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's,
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Shylock
Page Number: 4.1.190-208
Explanation and Analysis:

Portia's eloquent speech describing and lauding the benefits of mercy extends beyond this theme to other notions which appear and reappear throughout the play. Here, in the courtroom, this speech is not exactly a defense of Antonio according to Venetian law; it instead transgresses into religious territory. It raises questions about public versus private duties, religious salvation versus worldly justice, Old Testament versus New Testament ideals, and antagonistic relationships versus social cohabitation. Yet Portia's speech addresses so many other concerns because it almost entirely consists of abstractions. Thus it's not surprising that Portia's words don't even begin to appease Shylock's lust for revenge, or his specific desire to attain a piece of Antonio's physical body.

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
We will answer all things faithfully.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.321
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that Portia and Nerissa have revealed their deception, Portia assumes that Bassanio and Gratiano are likely unsatisfied by their explanations thus far. So she urges them to go in, so that they may begin interrogating her and Nerissa.

Here, Portia promises to be faithful in her answers about "all things." She seems to have quickly forgotten how Bassanio and Gratiano were themselves unfaithful when they gave away their rings at the courthouse, despite their prior vows to Portia and Nerissa that they would never part from these rings. We are left, at the play's end, with a promise for full disclosure in the future. This provides a fitting end to our beginning, when Antonio's sadness was unexplained and unclear. Now that these relationships have formed over the course of the play, they can perhaps begin to remove the secrecy and unrevealed nature of characters' internal experiences -- although these relationships themselves are framed by such uncertainty, because of their connections to Portia and Nerissa's rings, and any clarity must necessarily occur off the stage, beyond the edges of the play's artificial world. 

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Portia Character Timeline in The Merchant of Venice

The timeline below shows where the character Portia appears in The Merchant of Venice. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Act 1, scene 1
Greed vs. Generosity Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
...Gratiano's insensitivity and reveals why he's come to see Antonio. He is in love with Portia, a wealthy noblewoman, and hopes to seek her hand in marriage. However, he lacks the... (full context)
Act 1, scene 2
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At her estate in Belmont, near Venice, Portia complains to her servant Nerissa that she's "aweary of this great world" (1.2.1–2). Nerissa observes... (full context)
Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Icon
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Portia replies that in fact she's frustrated by her total lack of control over her romantic... (full context)
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Nerissa asks what Portia thinks of the foreign princes who have come to woo her so far. Nerissa lists... (full context)
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Nerissa asks Portia whether she remembers a Venetian man who once came—Bassanio. Portia does, fondly. Just then, a... (full context)
Act 2, scene 1
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At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco has arrived to seek Portia's hand in marriage. He begs her not to dislike him just because of his dark... (full context)
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Portia reminds Morocco that what she wants is irrelevant. The riddle of the caskets, devised by... (full context)
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Morocco rejoices, and asks Portia to bring him to the caskets so he might try his fortune. Portia reminds him... (full context)
Act 2, scene 7
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At Belmont, Portia shows the Prince of Morocco the three caskets. The first is gold and bears the... (full context)
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..."what many men desire." After hesitating a moment longer, Morocco settles on the gold casket. Portia hands him the key and tells him that if her picture lies inside, she will... (full context)
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Devastated, Morocco leaves. After he is gone, Portia snidely remarks that she hopes that "all of his complexion choose [...] so" (2.7.79). (full context)
Act 2, scene 8
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...and Solanio gossip about Jessica and Lorenzo's elopement and Bassanio's departure for Belmont to woo Portia. They laugh about Shylock's desperate search for Jessica. Upon learning that Jessica had eloped and... (full context)
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...worry about the money he had borrowed, but only to think of his courtship of Portia. Solanio remarks that Antonio "only loves the world for" Bassanio (2.8.50). They set off to... (full context)
Act 2, scene 9
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...Aragon has arrived at Belmont to try his hand at the riddle of the caskets. Portia tells the Prince the rules of the riddle: if he chooses the casket that contains... (full context)
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Portia gives it to him. But when Aragon unlocks the casket, inside he finds a "portrait... (full context)
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As Portia and Nerissa draw a curtain in front of the caskets, a messenger enters with the... (full context)
Act 3, scene 2
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In Belmont, Portia begs Bassanio to delay before making his choice among the caskets. If he chooses incorrectly,... (full context)
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Portia instructs that music should be played so that, if Bassanio chooses incorrectly, he will at... (full context)
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Bassanio opens the lead casket. Inside, he finds a painting of Portia and a poem praising the wisdom of his choice. Bassanio turns to Portia, insisting that... (full context)
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Lorenzo and Jessica enter with Salerio. Bassanio and Portia welcome them. Salerio explains that he is carrying a letter from Antonio for Bassanio. Gratiano... (full context)
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Bassanio gets increasingly upset as he reads the letter. He tells Portia about the money he allowed Antonio to borrow from Shylock and of Antonio's lost ships.... (full context)
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Portia asks Bassanio whether Antonio is a dear friend. When Bassanio affirms that he is, Portia... (full context)
Act 3, scene 4
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Back at Belmont, after Bassanio's hasty departure, Lorenzo and Portia are chatting. Lorenzo reassures Portia that if she knew what a "true gentleman" (3.4.6) Antonio... (full context)
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Portia then asks Lorenzo whether he and Jessica will manage her estate, as she has vowed... (full context)
Act 3, scene 5
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Lorenzo asks Jessica what she thinks of Portia. Jessica replies that she finds Portia more perfect than she can express, and compares her... (full context)
Act 4, scene 1
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The Duke announces that he has asked a wise lawyer, Doctor Bellario, to come and help judge the case. Salerio reports that a messenger has come bearing... (full context)
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Nerissa enters, disguised as a lawyer's clerk. She presents a letter to the Duke from Bellario. Meanwhile, Shylock wets his knife in anticipation of a verdict in his favor and Gratiano... (full context)
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The Duke reports that Bellario has recommended that the court hear the opinion of a young and learned lawyer, named... (full context)
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Portia tells Shylock that Venetian law is indeed on his side. Therefore, she begs him to... (full context)
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Portia asks if Antonio has the money to repay Shylock. Bassanio responds that he has offered... (full context)
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Portia states that Shylock is entitled to take a pound of flesh nearest Antonio's heart. She... (full context)
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Portia asks Antonio for any last words. Antonio tells Bassanio not to grieve, to send his... (full context)
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But just as Shylock is about to cut into Antonio, Portia reminds Shylock that the contract doesn't grant him any drop of blood from Antonio's body:... (full context)
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...decides to take Bassanio's prior offer of 9000 ducats. Bassanio is ready to accept, but Portia stops him. She says: Shylock wanted justice and he will have it. Shylock must take... (full context)
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...must give half of his wealth to Antonio and half to the state of Venice. Portia then asks Antonio to weigh in. Antonio says that the state should renounce its claim... (full context)
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When the Duke accepts these conditions, Portia mockingly demands: "Are you contended, Jew?" Shylock concedes that he is. Portia tells the clerk... (full context)
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The Duke asks Portia, still disguised as Balthazar, to dinner. She declines on the grounds that she must get... (full context)
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After Portia and Nerissa exit, Antonio tells Bassanio that he should value Balthazar's efforts to save Antonio's... (full context)
Act 4, scene 2
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Portia, still dressed as "Balthazar," instructs Nerissa, still dressed as the pageboy, to go to Shylock's... (full context)
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Gratiano enters, carrying the ring from Bassanio. He tells Portia that Bassanio has sent the ring and asks him to join them at Antonio's house... (full context)
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In an aside, Nerissa tells Portia that she will try to trick her husband into giving her his ring. Amused, Portia... (full context)
Act 5, scene 1
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A messenger enters with news that Portia will be back before daybreak from the monastery. He asks to know whether Bassanio has... (full context)
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Portia and Nerissa approach Belmont, and Portia admires the candlelit beauty of the estate, saying: "How... (full context)
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At that moment, Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano enter. Portia welcomes Bassanio home; Bassanio introduces Antonio and asks her to "give welcome" to the friend... (full context)
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...missing ring. Gratiano swears to Nerissa that he gave the ring to a judge's clerk. Portia asks what's wrong. Gratiano replies that his wife is overreacting. Nerissa insists that it is... (full context)
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Bassanio admits it is true. Portia pretends to be furious. She swears that she will never go to bed with Bassanio... (full context)
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Portia accepts the deal. She hands Antonio the ring, which she pretends is a different ring,... (full context)
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Portia also has a letter for Antonio with even better news: three of his ships have... (full context)
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Finally Portia encourages everyone to go into the house to hear the full explanation of all these... (full context)