“The Merchant of Venice”, our feelings and opinions change

The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy and as one of the Bard’s problem plays; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil. This well- known narrative contains several literary techniques, which Shakespeare uses to change our views and opinions about Portia. He applies misrepresentation of Portia by stating Bassanio’s perceptions of her as “just”; against the cruel, unfair comments made by her towards her suitors: “colt”. Her actions tend to contradict their values, for example her lack of respect towards her “renowned suitors” contrasts with her act as a heroine – as the “(disguised) lawyer”.

Being a woman so strong and capable of defeating the opposition at the time meant that the Elizabethan audience would have admired her. This was the time where much prejudice was prominent. It was still a patriarchal society where female figures were looked down on (although England had a ruling queen). Therefore by having a woman as a hero inevitably meant that feelings of respect and high regards were aroused amongst the audience towards Portia. The playwright employs many literary techniques to describe the character.

In Act 1 Scene 1, Shakespeare employs positive adjectives in Bassanio’s speech where he states Portia to be “wondrous” and “fair. ” By using positive adjectives, it creates an optimistic reflection of Portia in the audience’s mind. He further adds repetition to the adjectives; he repeats the word “fair” several times to emphasize how good she is. This is also done so the words sticks in the viewer’s mind, thus the audience see a positive image of her for longer. Shakespeare illustrates Portia to have “renowned suitors”, which depicts the fact that people of high status love her and therefore suggesting that she is of high worth.

In addition, Shakespeare uses the metaphor of “Jason and the Argonauts”; where he likens her hair to the “Golden Fleece” that Jason sought, and adds “… Many Jasons come in quest of her. ” This illustrates the fact that many men put their futures at risk in an attempt to get her, indicating that she is significant and highly commendable. Furthermore, Shakespeare uses hyperbole – especially when he declares Portia to be “fairer than that word. ” This implies that she is fairer than the ‘Bible’ suggesting that she is honest and a Godly woman.

This technique reinforces the positive portrayal of Portia. Similarly, at the beginning of Act 1Scene 2, Portia remains to be a good character in the audience’s eyes acting as a dutiful “daughter” – compelled to accept her “dead father(‘s)” wishes, when she could have merely ignored them, and as a result, this shows her to be obedient. The terms of her father’s “will” leave her without any choice in her future husband, and she is “aweary” that she does not have an appropriate mate. Here Shakespeare creates pathos through the use of emotive syntax and punctuations such as “O me, the word choose! The “O” is a very emotive word that confirms her genuine distress, whereas the exclamation mark points out the degree to which she is suffering. However, as the scene progresses, Portia appears to be harsh and insulting towards her “renowned suitors. ” She describes Neapolitan prince as a “colt” and declares that “his mother played false with a smith. ”

This is gravely insolent since she represents him as illegitimate; insulting not only him but his mother! Next she expresses that “(she would) rather be married to a death’s head” than to County Palatine as “(he) smiles not. This is insensitive because you cannot ridicule a person to such a degree for just not smiling. Most importantly, Portia mocks an “Englishman” exclaiming, “How oddly he is suited! I think he brought… and his behaviour everywhere” makes her seem incredibly callous as she has prejudged him on his physical appearance. This would also cause uproar amongst the Elizabethan audience as it would insult them directly being an English audience. Shakespeare has specifically done this to change opinions of Portia from sympathy to anger by showing her to be heartless, dismissing suitor after suitor in a very derisory fashion.

Shakespeare continues to divert our positive view of Portia. He does this by utilising “contrast” of Bassanio’s opinions of Portia as “fair” against Portia shown to be manipulative and unjust as she is noted to say “I pray thee set a deep glass of Rhenish wine on the contrary casket. ” She is clearly biased as she is not complying with the rules. Also, Portia is illustrated to be racist as Prince of Morocco states “Mislike me not for my complexion” in the opening lines of his speech to her. This shows how desperate he is to eliminate his flaws which he is blameless and helpless of.

Shakespeare has used emotive language in this statement as it stirs emotions, leaving both of the audience to feel sympathy for the prince. Perhaps the Elizabethan audience would have been less shocked by Portia’s actions, because the society as a whole preferred pale complexion at the time, hence they wouldn’t have liked the prince themselves. It was uncommon at the time to see a black person and thus they might have thought it was acceptable to dislike them. Conversely, the contemporary audience are bound to be appalled by her actions as different races are accepted in the community nowadays and therefore racism is seen as intolerable.

Moreover, Portia appears to be bossy with the renowned suitors applying imperatives such as “Go” when directing them what to do. This insinuates her to be discourteous, ordering men about- of high class, especially when she is a “woman”. Thus this suggests that she may be spoilt and conceited. Nevertheless, this all changes when Bassanio arrives. In Act 3 Scene 2, Portia seems to be modest as she tells Bassanio that “(she wishes (herself) much better, yet for (Bassanio she) would be trebled. ” This explains how she feels that he is worth more than her and that she is more than lucky to have him.

Here Shakespeare portrays her to be fulfilling the Elizabethan qualities of being a meek and gentle maiden, which would undoubtedly make her favourable amid the Elizabethan audience. Likewise, she declares that she “commits (herself) to (Bassanio) to be directed” mirroring the fact that she is humbled before her man, which further reinforces her qualities of a good Elizabethan wife since she submits herself to her man. Portia is further shown to be generous when she allows Bassanio to “pay (Shylock) six thousand and deface the bond.

Also, she lets her husband go on her “wedding day” to “dispatch all business”, which exemplifies her kindness to a greater extent because no bride would be willing to allow their husband to depart on their nuptials. This questions the audiences’ indefinite judgement of her as she has suddenly transformed from a racist offender to a charitable spouse. This promising image of her prolongs as she “disguises” herself as a “man in court” and proves herself to be resourceful by defending Antonio – her husband’s friend over the protagonist Jew. At this time, England was a Christian country.

The Elizabethans and all Christians were anti-Semitic and therefore the Elizabethan audience would have been delighted by the fact that Portia would shortly get “Shylock” prosecuted. Shakespeare demonstrates Portia as a Christian gentlewoman, who considers it her duty to show Shylock the foolishness of his exact interpretation of the law that has no mercy. She appeals to Shylock’s character and gives him a chance to get out of the bond. Here, Shakespeare conducts a long speech of “The quality of Mercy” where many literary devices are employed to persuade Shylock to show mercy.

Mercy is shown to be “natural” and “not strain’d” through the use of the simile “as the gentle rain”. Mercy is said to be something that cannot be forced by anyone; it is something that one must come up within himself – like how “gentle rain” cannot be created artificially, it is sincere. The simile of “rain” is employed because it can relate to everyone in the audience since they are all likely to have experienced rain and therefore helps them picture mercy to be familiar and easily granted, while the adjective “gentle” qualifies the type of rain it is which also signifies mercy to be gentle like it.

Secondly, Religious imagery is used when Portia says that “earth power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice”, implying that man can only become like God when he is merciful. By using religious imagery, it makes the speech sound influential as people took God seriously. The religious imagery is extended throughout the speech where the semantic field of God demonstrates “mercy” in other ways such as; “It is an attribute to God himself. ” This is appealing to Shylock’s ethics and therefore is persuasive as he is obliged to reconsider his pitiless actions and learn from God’s example.

Shakespeare includes an extended metaphor of “kings”, where “crown” and “sceptre is mentioned. This directly relates to God as the Elizabethans believed that God appointed Monarchy so that the land and people could be governed well, which meant that monarchy was thought to be powerful. Portia says, “sceptre(s) shows the force of temporal power… but mercy is above this sceptered sway”, symbolizing that mercy is greater than ruling the world by kings which points out that “mercy” must be as great as God’s work – quality of God himself.

The religious diction used persuades Shylock to see into giving mercy. Furthermore, “Mercy” is repeated five times in this speech. This not only emphasizes the word but makes Shylock and the audience remember it as it is the subject of the speech. Also, the word “bless” is repeated several times to create pathos in order for Shylock to propose mercy effortlessly. The playwright employs superlatives when describing that “’tis mightiest in the mightiest” who perform “mercy”. This implies that only strong people show mercy and that we become stronger because of it.

Such note persuades Shylock into bestowing mercy since everyone wants to be referred to as strong. The speech of the “quality of Mercy” consists of long complex sentences with enjambments that run on for some up to four lines (Act 4 Scene 1, Lines 187 – 191). Shakespeare has used this syntax to take a point and develop them. This sentence structure is appropriate as Portia is trying to “reason” with Shylock and therefore she needs to present more than a point to change his views.

This complex, moving speech makes both the Elizabethan and the contemporary audience see what an intelligent woman she is, able to give such a persuasive speech with immense literary techniques, thus we admire her. Also, given the fact that Gratiano mentions her to be “O learned judge” and a “Daniel” reinforces the notion of her intelligence. Later in the same scene, Portia turns out to be a “hypocrite”. Here we begin to dislike her again. She asks Shylock for justice and mercy to be shown to Antonio – yet she does not show any such mercy when she insists of Shylock’s punishment.

Shylock begs to just be given “(his) principle” (money), but Portia is unrelenting. She cites another law that states any “alien” who tries to take the life of a Venetian is to lose all of his money, which will be split between “the state” and “defendant”. As a result, she strips Shylock of everything, his self-respect and even his identity when she insists on his conversion to Christianity. This is a very unsympathetic sentence given by Portia, which bestows no mercy on Shylock. The contemporary audience may see Portia as biased and a cynical character after she presents one of the most pitiless women when it comes to punishing the Jew.

We feel shocked and outraged by her behaviour towards the Jews, especially after acknowledging the tragedy of the Holocaust. However, the Elizabethan audience would applaud her for her impressive performance where she succeeded when everyone else failed, even the highest legal minds in the state. The Elizabethans would not consider the racism behind her act to be immoral as it was an anti Semitic period. As a result, the Elizabethan audience would have delighted to see Shylock treated severely.

Portia is portrayed to be strong through finding the loop hole and saving the day makes her fit with this time because Elizabeth was a strong queen. Considering this, Elizabeth would have loved the play – the very person whom Shakespeare was writing for. Also, as women, they tend to like Portia because she sets an excellent example of women. Alternatively, Portia is then shown to be heartless again for the last time in the final scene. Here she is manipulative and harsh saying that “(she) will ne’er come in (Bassanio’s) bed until (she) sees the ring”, even though she does have the ring after all.

Then she goes on to tell him that “for the ring the doctor (did) lay with (her). ” This shows how cold she is, stirring feelings of jealousy and sadness in her lover’s heart – amused by his misery. Shakespeare has portrayed Portia in this way because he wants the audience to feel annoyed towards her. Yet, some Elizabethans may admire her as it shows Portia, a woman, to be strong and independent; nonetheless her action will still be seen as insensitive in all eyes. In conclusion, Portia is quick-witted, wealthy and beautiful.

She epitomises the virtues that are typical of Shakespeare’s heroines – it is no surprise that she emerges as the antidote to Shylock’s malice. However, unlike the heroines whose portrayal stays praiseworthy throughout the narrative, Portia’s depiction tends to vary from scene to scene or sometimes even line to line. Shakespeare uses many literary techniques to change our feelings towards her, which leaves us unsure of what to think of her. This uncertainty adds suspense to Shakespeare’s play which makes it interesting for the audience to watch.

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