By Sophie Stephens
Feminist icons have been a part of culture for centuries. Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes made history in the 19th and 20th century, and just recently women in the #MeToo movement have created a new norm for powerful women in society. Feminist icons in literature like Mary Wollstonecraft and her “A Vindication of the Rights of Women” set a new precedent for women’s power in society starting in the 18th century. But this feminine power was not a trend in literature, and many authors did not include powerful female characters or female characters with lines at all. Although Shakespeare is famous for his original plays from the late 16th and early 17th century, his powerful female characters were not the focus of his comedies or tragedies. However, there are often female characters that are given agency, although it can be debated as not being strong enough or important enough to outweigh the man’s. In “Merchant of Venice” it is argued whether Portia has any agency, or if she only makes her choices to please another male character. Shakespeare uses Portia’s own characterization of her solitude to prove that she has more power than her husband Bassanio, breaking societal norms for women.
Shakespeare’s use of contradictory masculine and feminine-connoted diction places Portia in a powerful position normally reserved for lead male characters. When Portia tells Bassanio “But now I was the lord / of this fair mansion, master of my servants, / queen o’er myself,” (3.2.167-169) she uses the word “lord” in addition to “queen” to describe the power she has over herself. “Lord,” is a term only used to describe the male’s position in the societal hierarchy, whereas Portia should refer to herself as “lady.” By doing this, she allows herself to be recognized as having the authority of a man in the household, since she has control over her belongings as well as herself as an unmarried woman with no father. She assumed the role of “lord” when her father died and she inherited the power of a man in the absence of a dominant male in her house. The use of “queen” two lines later places Portia at the highest level of jurisdiction of any of the other characters, considering they were not kings, the only person with more power than a queen. Although it is a feminine word, the use of queen challenges the masculine connotation of “lord,” reminding readers that she is a woman more powerful than any of her male counterparts. Previously in the passage, Portia describes herself to Bassanio as society would view her, saying “happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit / commits itself to yours to be directed” (163-164). The words “gentle spirit” that Portia uses to describe herself represent the ideal femininity that society expects. By using the words to describe herself, Portia is not conforming to these ideas or agreeing to society’s expectations as it may appear but is instead making fun of them. “Gentle spirit,” indicates a woman of the 16th century hidden in society by powerful men. Because society expects women to be submissive to their husbands and to have no authority in the household beyond child care–very unlike the unmarried and fatherless Portia–in addition to the context of her also using the words “unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised” (159), it is clear that the use of gentle spirit is used with the connotation of an ideal woman, and is therefore used jokingly by Portia. Portia also uses the word “directed” (164) to describe her gentle spirit when she commits herself to Bassanio. In line 162 Portia says “she is not so bred so dull but she can learn” and follows that by saying that her spirit will be directed by Bassanio after she commits herself to him. The words learn, commits, and directed all stick out from these three lines because, in sticking to the theme of Portia’s sarcasm, saying she will be able to learn to be directed by her husband further proves that her solitude gave her power unusual to the normal female in society. She has to learn to be submissive to her husband because she has never had to be that way before. Portia’s solitude allowed her to gain power that is normally reserved for the males, breaking expectations and challenging gender roles.
The addition of punctuation in the middle of Portia’s lines defines her previous success with her solitude as equal to a male’s power. As Portia describes her own solitude to her new husband Bassanio, the monologue jumps between the power she had and will have when she gets married. When Portia says “Myself, and what is mine, to you and yours / is now converted. But now I was the lord of this fair mansion” (166-167) there is a complete stop indicated by the period in the middle of the line, creating an abnormal change in the flow of the line. In line 166, Portia gives over all of her belongings and herself to Bassanio, but the period creates a change of tone, and she begins to explain the power she had before she had found a husband. This subtle change creates a tone shift for the rest of the passage. Instead of submitting herself and her power to her husband, the lines following the period in line 167 allow Portia to reassert her dominance and show that she is not being silenced by her husband but is instead willingly handing over her power. Although the choice is difficult, it is a choice only made by female characters of this time period, and Portia chooses to stand tall and hand over her power, making her more of an equal to her husband in terms of authority. Portia’s agency acts as a presage to her husband of the authority she once had in her possession, and the authority she still has at this moment that allows her to willingly give up her jurisdiction for marriage. Similarly, in lines 170 and 171, Portia says “this house, these servants, and this same myself / are yours,–my lord’s!–I give them with this ring.” The use of the em dash as a text break shows that Portia’s interjection between the dashes is important, and although “my lord’s!” does not seem vital for context and does not add any new meaning to the passage, Shakespeare purposefully uses the em dash instead of commas to add extra emphasis in the line. The emphasis on “lord,” referring to Bassanio, clarifies who Portia chooses to give her power to. Because Portia previously described herself as “lord” and “queen” however, not only does “my lord” in this line clarify Bassanio’s power, it also categorizes Portia’s agency, and compares Portia’s dominance to Bassanio’s as equal. When Portia says “I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends / exceed account: but the full sum of me / is sum of something” (156-158), the colon leads readers to a line that shows Portia’s intelligence over the men and over society. Before the colon, Portia is saying that she is more than anyone could calculate just by looking at her. That line in itself pokes fun at the men that–in Portia’s opinion–are not smart enough to understand her. The line after the colon, however, shows Portia’s dominance over the men. Bassanio is not smart enough to understand or calculate all of Portia, but after the colon, Portia shows that she is smart enough to understand and calculate herself. This gives her more authority than the male characters by giving her the intelligence to know something the males do not. Portia’s interjections of what society sees versus who she actually is places her authority over the males and gives her the power to tell them who she is instead of being silent and having assumptions be made about her.
The meter and scansion that does not fit the common iambic pentameter directly leads readers to Portia’s own definition of her power and femininity. Although Shakespeare commonly writes in iambic pentameter, it is not unusual for him to include extra syllables unnatural to the iambic pentameter pattern to address few important lines from an entire passage. For example, when Portia says “but the full sum of me / is sum of something: which to term in gross, / is an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised” (157-159), line 159 has an extra syllable, causing it to have a feminine ending. Because this line breaks iambic pentameter, it feels unnatural to read out loud, causing readers to spend more time on the line. Upon first glance the line seems like nothing special, describing a rash and naive girl. But this description coming from Portia’s voice, in addition to her tone previously in the passage, actually shows annoyance rather than belief. Following Portia’s statement “to term in gross” (158), the adjectives unlesson’d, unschool’d, and unpractised does not describe Portia’s beliefs about herself but how society views her. She mocks society’s opinions of her–which are based solely on the fact that she does not fit in because of the power she possesses–by saying this about herself. Likewise, when Portia says “happiest of all, is that her gentle spirit / commits itself to yours to be directed” (163-164) the line is in a trochaic meter and has twelve syllables instead of ten. The line starts with stress on “happiest” and follows the trochaic pattern through the line. This line was deliberately written to stand out among all of the other lines from the passage, being the only trochaic line and the line with the most syllables from the entire monologue. Upon first read the lines may seem like repetitive lines about giving away her power, but remembering that it is the most unnatural line of the passage in addition to Portia’s tone in this section of the passage, instead of showing Portia as submissive or willing to hand over her power she is instead mocking society. With the use of “gentle spirit” and the stress on “happiest” in addition to Portia’s background with authority which is unnatural to women in society, it can be inferred that Portia says this jokingly. She is not happily committing herself to her husband or to society’s expectations for her to learn to be compliant and give up her power but is instead showing her defiance to being told that as a woman she should not have this power and needs a man to be in charge of her. Portia’s solitude not only gave her power equal to a male’s in terms of control over herself and belongings but gives her the power to define herself instead of letting society define her based on gender.
Using Portia’s perspective to characterize her solitude defines her power which is unnatural for women in society. Through diction, punctuation, and meter Shakespeare proves through Portia’s voice that she is powerful, strengthening her agency. With females like Portia in literature widespread, societal norms for women will be broader, giving women more authority and making them equal to men.