"I stand for sovereignty"

"I stand for sovereignty"

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"I stand for sovereignty" reading Portia in Shakespeare's The merchant of Venice
Van Pelt, Deborah
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[Tampa, Fla]
University of South Florida
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Elizabeth Tudor
Queen Elizabeth I
Learned Renaissance woman
New historicism
Dissertations, Academic -- English -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: Portia serves as a complex and often underestimated character in William Shakespeare's controversial comedy The Merchant of Venice. Using the critical methodologies of New Historicism and feminism, this thesis explores Portia's representation of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England from 1558 to 1603. Striking similarities exist between character and Queen, including physical description, suitors, marriage issues, and rhetoric. In addition, the tripartite marriage at the play's conclusion among Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio represents the relationship Elizabeth Tudor formed between her merchant class and her aristocracy. Shylock serves as a representation of a generic or perhaps Catholic threat to England during the early modern era. Moreover, by examining Portia's language in the trial scene, the play invites audiences to read her as a representative of the learned Renaissance woman, placing special emphasis on the dialectical and rhetorical elements of the language trivium in classical studies. Finally, through a close reading of the mercantile language in the text, Portia can be interpreted as the merchant of the play's title.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
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by Deborah Van Pelt.

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"I stand for sovereignty" :
b reading Portia in Shakespeare's The merchant of Venice
h [electronic resource] /
by Deborah Van Pelt.
[Tampa, Fla] :
University of South Florida,
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 52 pages.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2009.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
3 520
ABSTRACT: Portia serves as a complex and often underestimated character in William Shakespeare's controversial comedy The Merchant of Venice. Using the critical methodologies of New Historicism and feminism, this thesis explores Portia's representation of Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England from 1558 to 1603. Striking similarities exist between character and Queen, including physical description, suitors, marriage issues, and rhetoric. In addition, the tripartite marriage at the play's conclusion among Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio represents the relationship Elizabeth Tudor formed between her merchant class and her aristocracy. Shylock serves as a representation of a generic or perhaps Catholic threat to England during the early modern era. Moreover, by examining Portia's language in the trial scene, the play invites audiences to read her as a representative of the learned Renaissance woman, placing special emphasis on the dialectical and rhetorical elements of the language trivium in classical studies. Finally, through a close reading of the mercantile language in the text, Portia can be interpreted as the merchant of the play's title.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Advisor: Sara Munson Deats, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Tudor
Queen Elizabeth I
Learned Renaissance woman
New historicism
Dissertations, Academic
x English
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856
u http://digital.lib.usf.edu/?e14.2860


“I Stand for Sovereignty”: Reading Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice by Deborah Van Pelt A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in English Literature Department of English College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: Sara Munson Deats, Ph.D. Lagretta Lenker, Ph.D. Sheila Diecidue, Ph.D. Date of Approval: March 4, 2009 Keywords: Elizabeth Tudor, Queen Elizab eth I, Learned Rena issance Woman, New Historicism, Feminism 2009, Deborah Van Pelt


Acknowledgements This thesis would not have been possi ble without the support and encouragement of several people, to whom I owe innumerabl e thanks. I would like to thank Dr. Sheila Diecidue for her sharp editing and her suggestio ns to improve my diction and syntax. I would also like to thank Dr. Lagretta Lenker, who first intr oduced me to Portia and to whom I am forever grateful for making Shakes peare accessible and enjoyable. I could not have accomplished this paper without the steadfast support, encouragement, and dedication of Dr. Sara Munson Deats, whose tireless efforts made this work possible. Finally, I would like to thank my mother fo r her support both material and emotional and my sister, Pam, who is always in my corner.


Table of Contents Abstract ii Chapter One Introduction 1 Chapter Two Portia as Port rait of Elizabeth Tudor 16 Chapter Three Portia as Representative of the Learned Renaissance Woman 33 Chapter Four Portia as the Merchant of Venice 39 Chapter Five Conclusion 45 Works Cited 51 i


“I Stand for Sovereignty” : Reading Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice Deborah Van Pelt ABSTRACT Portia serves as a complex and of ten underestimated character in William Shakespeare’s controversial comedy The Merchant of Venice Using the critical methodologies of New Historicism and femi nism, this thesis explores Portia’s representation of E lizabeth Tudor, Queen of Engl and from 1558 to 1603. Striking similarities exist between ch aracter and Queen, including phys ical description, suitors, marriage issues, and rhetoric. In addition, the tripartite marriage at the play’s conclusion among Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio represents the relationship Elizabeth Tudor formed between her merchant class a nd her aristocracy. Shylock serv es as a representation of a generic or perhaps Catholic threat to Engl and during the early mode rn era. Moreover, by examining Portia’s language in the trial scene, the play invites audiences to read her as a representative of the learned Renaissa nce woman, placing special emphasis on the dialectical and rhetorical elem ents of the language trivium in classical studies. Finally, through a close reading of the me rcantile language in the text, Po rtia can be interpreted as the merchant of the pl ay’s title. ii


1 Chapter One Introduction Learned women always seem to make men nervous. As recently as our last presidential election, Americans watched as the media and the pundits mustered forces against the sole female candidate, Sen. Hillary Clinton, and effectively ran her out of the Democratic primary race, even though she ear ned more than eighteen million votes and won every large electoral state, including California, New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Interestingly, after Sen. Clinton, a Yale law school graduate, withdrew from the primary, the arguments she used against her ri val, Sen. Barack Obama – that he was too inexperienced; that he lacked political s easoning – spouted from the Republican machine and its media mouthpieces like geysers. When they came from a woman, those arguments to some seemed specious; however, when men uttered them, at least 46 percent of the electorate listened. Throughout history, learned wo men have faced similar efforts to marginalize or even silence their voices. Aristocrats, zeal ous Protestant reformers, and common folk shuddered at the thought of Eli zabeth Tudor – or any woman – sitting on the throne of England. Protestant churchman John Knox s ounded a trumpet blast of vitriol against female leaders, maintaining that they were too weak and feeble to rule, although he somewhat changed his tune when confronted by an outraged Elizab eth, denying that he had directed his misogynistic music specifically toward her (Warnicke 60-61). Fortunately for England, there were no demo cratic elections in the Tudor era, only


2 coronation ceremonies where blood heirs of a nointed monarchs received their blessings from God and the peers of the realm. Perhaps one of the richest iron ies of Tudor England stems from the fact that Henry VIII, obse ssed with fathering a male heir, somewhat reluctantly named his daughters as rightful claimants to the throne in his Third Succession Act of 1543. Murderer of two wives, father of two queens, Henry somehow possessed the foresight to l eave his kingdom to his daughters, a move which likely changed the path of English history forever. Of course, Henry assumed that his young son Edward, his first heir to the throne, would live long and father many offspring, thereby negating his daughtersÂ’ claims; He nry also assumed that he would father more legitimate children with his succeeding wives. Neither happened. Still, Henry seemed more concerned with protecting the Tudor line than with whether a woman or a man sat on the throne; moreover, he probably reasoned that hi s daughtersÂ’ husbands, if either of the two women ascended the throne, would rule in their stead (Warnicke 47-55). No man, however, would rule Elizabeth; she alone steer ed England for forty-five years, stabilizing the nascent nation and molding it into a European powerhouse. HenryÂ’s enigmatic behavior may deri ve from the many learned women who surrounded him all of his life. His grandm other, the Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond, was one of the earliest learned wo men in England. In an era when most gentlewomen were illiterate, Lady Margaret wr ote in English and in French; in addition, she could read French and enough Latin to follow a church service (Warnicke 11). HenryÂ’s doomed second wife, Anne Boleyn, moth er of Elizabeth, enjoyed the reputation of a refined, intelligent woman. Even HenryÂ’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, mother of Mary Tudor, was considered a learned woman (Warnicke 32). Not su rprisingly, both of


3 Henry’s daughters received the finest education from the fine st available tutors and were equal in all intellectual aspects to educated men, writing and speaking in Latin and Greek, translating verse, and using their impressive rhetorical skills to maneuver their kingdoms to their own ends. Learned women existed not only in real life but also in the fiction of the age. No stranger to creating memorable female characters, William Shakespeare crafted Portia, the heroine of his most well-known comedy, The Merchant of Venice as a strong, independent woman intent on managing the men in her life to suit her own desires. Portia graciously juggles odd-ba ll suitors while maintaining fideli ty to her father’s will; she interprets law and argues logica lly during a trial in which she saves a man’s life; and she picks the aristocrat and Venetian Bassanio as her lifelong mate, making sure that he understands from the start th at she rules the roost (and manages the ducats). Perhaps more than any other of Shakespeare’s female characters – with the possible exception of Cleopatra – Portia represents the ideal of th e independent, intelligen t learned woman, and it is within this context that I believe Portia should be interpreted. One of Shakespeare’s most complex and controversial works, Merchant presents an enigma to many scholars intent on unrav eling its meaning. On the surface, the play appears to conform to the format of the typi cal early modern festive comedy: it features several simultaneous plot structures, incl uding the “pound of flesh” conflict and Bassanio’s wooing of Portia, a nd it juxtaposes a hazardous re al world oozing with strife with a bucolic green world where music and bliss abound. By the play’s end, the boy gets the girl; both get the ducats; and all the admirable characters seem happy. However, like peeling an onion, as we begi n to peel the layers of Merchant we begin to discover some


4 atypical complexity: Is this a play about love, or money? Is it a festive comedy, a tragicomedy, or a problem play? Shylock, pe rhaps the most studied character in the drama, likely would not find the play comic. What about the other characters? Over the decades, Shylock has taken scholarly center stag e, but other characters in the play offer rich mining for critical meaning as well. For example, is Antonio really in love with Bassanio, or does their relationship simply epitomize the Renaissance bond of male friendship? Is Jessica truly a cruel, disobedient daughter or a just young woman deeply in love? Indeed, Merchant vexes audiences and scholars alike with layers of possible interpretations and with some deliciously intriguing characters, the most intriguing of whom, I argue, is Portia. For all the scholarly wealth that Portia offers, she has received relatively little attention compared with Shyl ock, who has fascinated critic s and directors for centuries. Fortunately, her star has risen in the past several decades, th anks primarily to feminist scholarship. However, a review of the literature reveals that in terpretations of Portia read like so much buckshot, presenting an oxymoroni c portrait of this complex figure: critics paint her as an “unruly woman” and as an obedient daughter; as th e consummate teacher and the willing student; as a representative of mercy and the divine and as a master manipulator; as an emblem of the court of Ch ancery and as an emblem of the world of the aristocracy; as a dominant woman and as an acquiescent wife w ho skips happily back to hearth, home, and hubby, no questions aske d. This scholarship, however meaningful, seems a bit off target, and I would submit that few, if any, of these interpretations cut to Portia’s core. I suggest that we need a fresh reading of Portia, a read ing that combines the very good feminist scholarship that has recently emerged in tandem with New


5 Historicism, a critical method that, unfo rtunately, often seems to ignore female characters. This combination of New Historic ism and feminism might grant us additional insight into Portia and help us to “peel aw ay” the outer layers of this intriguing and powerful character to reveal her core. New Historicist readings of Merchant are plentiful, including Walter Cohen’s seminal 1982 work entitled “ The Merchant of Venice and the Possibiliti es of Historical Criticism,” but very few focus on Portia, si ngling out Shylock inst ead. Several scholars agree that Shylock represents the ill-fate d Dr. Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s PortugueseJewish physician who, suspected of treason, was sent to the block by the Earl of Essex, who ironically followed him a fe w years later. Other critics have stretched a scholarly bridge between Portia’s suitors and famous writers by arguing that Boccaccio served as the model for the Neapolitan Pr ince; Spenser for the County Palatine; and Montaigne for Monsieur Le Bon (Kuhns and Tovey 327-328). In addition, one historian, in a piece that should only be read satiricall y, posits that Elizabeth hersel f wrote Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech and had it forcibly inserted into the play after she realized her mistake in signing Dr. Lopez’s death warrant (Baker 29). The last reference aside, most of the historical comparisons drawn by critics ma ke sense, and they serve a meaningful scholarly purpose. But one historical compar ison, the one that I believe makes the most sense of all, has yet to be clearly and unambiguously presented: Portia, one of Shakespeare’s most empowered female characte rs, serves as a representation of Elizabeth Tudor, undoubtedly England’s premier wo man in the early modern era. In my reading of Merchant I will attempt to draw this historical comparison. Using a combination of feminist and New Histor icist scholarship, I will assert that Portia


6 is a complex, strong, and layered character and therefore should be interpreted as such. First, I will maintain that Po rtia can be identified with E lizabeth Tudor and that the play offers numerous clues to support this interpretation. During the 1580s and 1590s, as England quickly expanded its merchant class, Elizabeth strove to join, or “marry,” the rising capitalist sector of th e country with the landed but relatively poor aristocracy through unofficially sanctioned high-seas pira ting. Indeed, Cohen and other scholars such as Burton Hatlen have alluded to the mu ltiple strategies that exist within Merchant including the characterizations of Antoni o and Bassanio as representatives for the bourgeois and for the landed aristocracy, respec tively. I will develop those allusions by suggesting that the historical mercantile-aristocratic marriage that Elizabeth sanctioned is represented through the tripar tite “marriage” that Por tia performs among Bassanio, Antonio, and herself in the play’s final act. Mo reover, I will also posit that Elizabeth, as an eligible single monarch, pl ayed coy with numerous suitors from foreign lands in an effort to forge alliances while at the same time maintaining her independence, just as Portia graciously receives her brood of fore ign suitors while subtly shooing them off. Furthermore, I will connect Portia’s arranged marriage with the restrictions placed on Elizabeth’s marital choice by her father’s will and by her Privy C ouncil; likewise, I will forge a link between Bassanio as Portia’s ch osen mate and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth’s longtim e favorite who at one time was considered the likely choice as the queen’s consort. In addition, I will ma intain that as England’s female sovereign during the early modern era, Elizabeth ha d to walk a tightrope between her public position as an authoritative, competent ruler and her private role as a submissive, inferior female. Shakespeare illustrates this dichot omy in the contrast between the bucolic,


7 feminized green world of Belmont and the rough-and-tumble streets of Venice. In Belmont, Portia behaves as any female monarch might at home: she rules the roost, albeit through coyness and coercion, the strategies th at Elizabeth employed to control her Privy Council. But when she steps into the male world of Venice, which arguably represents the patriarchal halls of the English govern ment, Portia must “put on the pants” to command authority. Similarly, several Elizab ethan scholars remark that the Queen frequently referred to herself as a man. Eli zabeth’s famous Tilbury speech before the ragtag militia positioned to fend off the Spanish Armada, in which she proclaimed: “I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too,…” (Weir 393), o ffers a salient example of this strategy. Moreover, I also will contend that Shakespeare’s descriptions of Portia with her “golden locks” can be interpreted as a description of Elizabeth Tudor with her famous red-gold hair. Finally, I will argue that the settings in Merchant – Venice, Belmont, and the unseen marital bedroom – correlate to the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Privy Chamber, and Withdrawing Chamber. Deepening the interpretation, I also will suggest that the play invites audiences to see Portia not only as a repres entation of Elizabeth Tudor bu t also as a por trait of the learned Renaissance woman. Educated, refined, gracious, intelligent, and alluring, Portia, like Elizabeth Tudor, represents all that men held in awe – and feared – in educated women of the early modern er a. Although the following comm ents were written about a young Elizabeth by her Cambridge tutor, they cert ainly can be applied to Portia or to any learned Renaissance woman: “ the praise whic h Aristotle gives, wholly centres in her; beauty, stature, prudence, and industr y…her mind has no womanly weakness, her


8 perseverance is equal to that of a man, and her memory long keeps what it quickly picks up…she delights as much in music as she is skilful in it ” (Neale 14). Furthermore, I will argue that in the play, Portia represen ts the “masculine” subjects of rhetoric and dialectic, two-thirds of the language triv ium in classical studies, as opposed to the “feminine” subject of grammar, the final third in the trivium. In the early modern era, women were often restricted to learning only grammar (G ibson 11); however, I contend that Portia’s logic-driven trial speech in which she unravels Shylock’s claim to the bond allows audiences to see that women were capable of such high-brow rhetor ical exercises. Finally, I will submit that the “merchant” in Shakespeare’s highly ambiguous title refers not to Antonio or Shylock, as traditional critics attest, but to Portia. Indeed, it is Portia who orchestrates her choice of husband in the casket scene; Portia who, using her intelligence, cunningly maneuvers the Duke and Shylock in order to achieve the outcome at the trial that she desires; Portia who make s clear at the play’s end that she controls Belmont’s mountains of ducats as well as he r husband Bassanio; Portia who conjures Antonio’s argosies intact. If anyone is the merc hant here, it must be Portia, for she is the one making all the deals. As we peel away the layers, we see Por tia as a representative of many figures: as England’s Queen; as a learned Renaissan ce woman, who could have brains and a husband, too, and on her own terms; and as the merchant controlling the financial interests in Venice and in Belmont. Perhaps Sh akespeare’s title is not so ambiguous after all. Examined holistically, Merchant does not fit neatly into the traditional types of early modern comedies. Although it contains el ements of the festive comedy, such as the


9 disordered real world of Venice and the femini zed green world of Belmont, as well as the three marriages at the play’s end, the dr ama disseminates a decidedly dark tone. Shylock’s treatment perhaps pushes the play into the genre of tr agicomedy or problem play; however, if we read Merchant as a multilayered work, we then might view the play as an interrogative drama, a term coin ed by Norman Rabkin. Rabkin suggests that Shakespeare’s plays, particularly this one, re fuse to offer audiences and critics one clear meaning. Instead, Rabkin posits that plays such as Merchant force us to formulate questions that we cannot answer simply (3031). Using Rabkin’s th esis as a springboard, I contend that we can identify the numerous similarities th at Shakespeare draws between his heroine and England’s sove reign, similarities that prev ious critics seem to have overlooked. The figure of Portia has always stir red controversy. According to Linda Rozmovits, in October of 1887 the British publication Girl’s Own Paper invited readers to participate in a series of writing compe titions on a great English author. For the first contest, the subject was “My favourite hero ine from Shakespeare” (441). The response – both quantity and quality – overwhelmed the publication’s editors; moreover, the editors noted that Shakespearean heroines who “successfully overcome their troubles have been six times more popular than those whose end is tragic.” Not surprisi ng, the contest’s most popular heroine was Portia: more than a third of the competition’s papers were devoted to her (Rozmovits 442). Despite young, nineteen th-century women’s adoration of her, Rozmovits writes that the character of Portia constituted a site of struggle for Victorians: feminists praised her performance as a lawyer while anti-feminists de plored her apparent submission to her husband at the play’s end (441).


10 More than one hundred years later, the str uggle over Portia’s character continues: the scholarship, primarily femi nist criticism, seems to see-saw between seeing her as a strong woman and a manipulative ingnue. Perhap s this scholarly see-sawing has more to do with Shakespeare’s use of language in the play than anything else; a device, perhaps, to appease his patriarchal audi ences. In any case, critics ca nnot seem to decide whether Portia is a strong, independent woman or a subservient female moving from one dependent relationship to another. For instance, Clara Claiborne Park asserts that it is not surprising that Shakespeare, the greatest E lizabethan, was attracted by the qualities of his sovereign; in addition, Park remarks that Po rtia alone among Shakespeare’s heroines is allowed to confront a man over matters outside the traditional sphere of a woman – and to win, not unlike Elizabeth. However, Park is less convincing when she interprets the play’s title, maintaining that “no feminine na me appears in (Shakespeare’s) titles except as the second member of a male-female pa ir” (101-109). On the surface, Park may be correct; however, I contend that the “Merchan t” in the title refers to the dominant, powerful woman whom Park praise s, which is a link that previ ous critics have not forged. Likewise, Corrine Abate comments that becau se Portia is the only child of a dead father and the sole owner and director of Belmont, she does not possess any “dependent and submissive inclination,” tr aits typically associ ated with women (283). Vera Jiji posits that Portia’s drive for power seems to be one of her most persiste nt traits throughout the play; furthermore, Jiji maintains that audien ces do not notice Portia ’s domination because she uses it for benevolent means (7). Keith G eary argues that in the casket scene, Portia makes her suitors look like fools; the scene, he observes, emphasizes Portia’s superiority to her suitors and her ability to “deal with them directly,” without the aid of a man.


11 Furthermore, Geary maintains that Portia and her waiting woman, Nerissa, present a “united front to the worl d of men” (57). However, in mids tream, Geary, like other critics, seems to change course, insisting that the empowered Portia at the end morphs into a subordinate wife, moving from one dependent economic rela tionship to another (63). Karoline Szatek seizes upon the economi c connection between the play and the Elizabethan court, referring to Portia as a “sovereign,” a “vigorous tradeswoman,” and a “successful merchant,” although she stops short of naming Portia as the merchant in the play’s title or of connecti ng her to Elizabeth (335-348). Some critics view Portia as a manipulat or; John Velz compares her with Medea, even quoting a “postmodern cynic” who calls Portia a “scheming vixen” (183-184). Carol Leventen continues the dichotomous interp retations by contending that Shakespeare aimed both to evoke and assuage cultural anxi eties, which were intensified by Portia’s intelligence and neutralized by her deference to patriarchal norms (62). Furthermore, Leventen asserts that Portia pe rceives herself solely in relation to her father’s will; the obedient daughter never “voices anger” at her father for arranging the casket “game of chance” (67). However, a close reading of the text reveals that Portia does feel some resentment at being constrained by her fath er’s will: “I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I ca nnot choose one nor re fuse none?” (1.2.22-26). Nerissa, however, quickly defends the tact ics of Portia’s father for choosing his daughter’s husband by calling him “ever vi rtuous” (1.2.27). Despite this resentment, Leventen correctly observes that Portia accepts her father’s will (in both of its meanings), and I will associate Portia’s acceptance with Elizabeth Tudor’s prince ly acceptance of her


12 father’s legal statute naming her third in line to the throne behind her step-brother Edward and step-sister Mary, a move that th ereby erased some – if not all – hope of a companionate marriage. Recently, several unpublished master’s theses have attempted to link Portia to Elizabeth I, although only one offers a clea r New Historicist reading and a definite connection between character and Queen. In he r intriguing New Historicist interpretation written in 1992 and entitled Queen O’er Myself : A Study of Portia’s Identity as Elizabeth I Shannon Prosser interprets Po rtia as existing in a situation similar to that of Elizabeth: the dilemma of a woman in a posit ion of inherited power (5). She also sees Belmont as representing Elizab eth’s monarchy, a “fantasy of absolute female rulership” (6) and reads Bassanio not as a potential love r and husband but as an emblem of Elizabeth’s subjects, asserting that both Ba ssanio and the Tudor queen ’s subjects sought maternal security from Portia and Elizab eth, respectively (7). Prosser also makes reference to Portia’s authoritative language in her use of such words as “queen” and “lord.” Oddly, New Historicist readings of Sh akespeare’s female characters have received short shrift from scholars, perhaps because the critical methodology is relatively new, or perhaps because critics choose not to search for strong Renaissance women with whom to align Shakespeare’s dominant female characters. However, New Historicism, blended with the enlightening feminist scholarsh ip that has emerged in the past three to four decades, seems an ideal match for interp reting some of these dramatically powerful women. A solid scholarly foundation has been la id regarding Shakespeare’s relationships with courtiers such as Henry Wriothes ley, the third Earl of Southampton and


13 Shakespeare’s patron and possible lover, and Robert Devereux, the second Earl of Essex; using that foundation, it seems reasonable to assume that the dramatist engaged in discussions with these men about the political and social mach inations of the Tudor court. Why, then, should we be surprised if his work reflects these machinations? In his 1982 article, Cohen set the st age for New Historicist readings of Merchant by arguing that audiences and sc holars should view the play as a symptom of a problem in the life of late sixteenth-century Engl and (767). However, Cohen and others who examine the play through a Ne w Historicist lens tend to focus primarily on the drama’s economics and its relationship to the issue of usury in early modern England. For example, Cohen writes that historical critics of Merchant see Shylock as the embodiment of capitalism; England was tr ansitioning from a feudal to a capitalist society, and banking, credit, and lending we re all on the rise, thus cr eating uncertainty. Moreover, Cohen reads Merchant as a pro-capitalist play and argues that Shakespeare criticizes only the worst aspects of the emerging economic system (767-768). In perhaps his most insightful critique, Cohen links Antonio w ith the coming of modern capitalism and contends that the play’s c oncluding tripartite unity of Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia allows the landed aristocracy, represented by Bassanio, to assume a harmonic but dominant role with and over the mercan tile class (772). Cohen comments that Shakespeare’s goal is to “rebind what ha d been torn asunder into a new unity under aristocratic leadership” (777). In contrast to Cohen, Marxist critic Burton Hatlen combines the focus on the feudal and bourgeois concepts in Merchant with Rabkin’s idea of “complementarity, the capacity to hold simultaneously in mind two cont rasting sets of ideas about the world,” to


14 posit that Shakespeare was deeply engaged with the social and political issues of his time and therefore wrote Merchant as a critique of capitalism. To Hatlen, the play’s appeal to feudalism stems simply from Shakespeare’s us e of dialectics, a st rategy the playwright frequently employs to make his audiences th ink about the emerging i ssues of their time (101-102). Finally, Stephen Greenblatt offers an intriguing New Histor icist perspective on how Shakespeare came to create the character of Shylock. In Will in the World Greenblatt contends that th e dramatist likely witnessed the bloody execution of Dr. Roderigo Lopez, Elizabeth’s physician who wa s found guilty of attempting to poison his mistress. Before the axe fell, Greenblatt quote s Elizabethan historian William Camden as recording Dr. Lopez declaring that “ he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ” (277). This statement, according to Camden, prompted laughter from the crowd. Greenblatt seizes upon this reputed pie ce of history to insist that Shakespeare attempts not only to capture that death-scene laughter in the play’s comedic elements but also attempts to unsettle a udiences by portraying Shylock as a feeling, thinking, bleeding human being. Greenblatt identifies Merchant ’s trial scene, in which Shylock is stripped of most of his money and is forced to convert to Christianity, as th e dramatic equivalent of Dr. Lopez’s execution (286). Audiences wa nt to laugh – this is a comedy, after all – but instead end up feeling qu easy at Shylock’s treatment. Like other scholars, Greenblatt argues th at Shylock is the play’s most dominant character and insists th at “almost everyone thinks that the merchant of Venice of the play’s title is Shylock” (257). However, I will assert that if Shylock can be read as the merchant of the play’s title, then Portia can be as we ll, and with stronger reason.


15 Furthermore, if Greenblatt can speculate that Shakespeare based the character of Shylock on a historical figure such as Dr. Lopez, then I will speculate that the dramatist could just as easily have based the character of Portia on another historical fi gure: Elizabeth Tudor, Queen of England.


16 Chapter Two Portia as Portrait of Elizabeth Tudor In May of 1553, only five years before she would ascend to the throne of England, Elizabeth Tudor, second daughter of Henry VIII, rode into London to acknowledge her step-sister Mary’s coronation on the death of their half-brother, Edward. In his biography of Elizabeth, John Neale de scribes the scene by observing that the princess was just twenty and in the full bloom of life: “some thought her very handsome, others rather comely than handsome….her hair was golden, but more red than yellow; her skin very fine, though of an olive comple xion…she had striking eyes, and above all, beautiful hands which she knew how to displa y” (28). Perhaps her hair, hands, and eyes were her most striking attributes. Alison Weir another of Elizabeth’ s biographers, writes that her eyes were “bright and piercing, beneat h thin, arched eyebrows but their colour is still a matter for dispute. If she was not c onventionally attractive, she certainly had a definite charm that attracted men; not a ll her courtiers’ flattery proceeded from sycophancy” (16). Although Merchant does not offer a detailed phy sical description of Portia, several lines do allude to her appearance, spec ifically to her hair and eyes. Early in the play, when describing Portia to Antonio, Ba ssanio speaks of his rich lady as having “sunny locks” that “hang on her temples like a golden fleece” (1.1.169-170); moreover, he reveals to his friend that he sometimes receives “fair speechless messages” from her eyes (1.1.163-164). Later, when Bassanio chooses the correct casket a nd receives Portia’s


17 hand in marriage, he joyously refers to her portrait by noting that “H ere in her hairs/The painter plays the spider, and hath woven/A golden mesh t’en trap the hearts of men” (3.2.120-122); a few lines later he refers to her eyes and as ks how the por trait painter could have been seen to pain t both: “Having made one,/Methi nks it should have power to steal both his/And leave itsel f unfurnished” (124-126). Morocco, one of Portia’s many failed su itors, briefly describes the lady of Belmont as “fair Portia” (2.7.47) as he muse s to himself over which casket to choose before he ultimately selects the golden caske t, which does not contai n Portia’s portrait. However, what is most intriguing about Mo rocco’s musings is not his description of Portia or his failed choice; instead, it is hi s seemingly off-hand reference to a gold coin. As he rationalizes to himself the choice of casket, Morocco remarks that “They have in England/A coin that bears the figure of an angel/Stamped in gold, but that’s insculped upon;/But here an angel in a golde n bed/Lies all within” (2.7.55-59). Merchant ’s editor, David Bevington, glosses the word “coin” as an instrument of money known as “the angel, which bore the device of the archa ngel Michael treading on the dragon” (198). However, I posit that the refe rence could also be to the English coins that undoubtedly bore the stamp of the Queen, a hidden intern al comparison between Elizabeth, the “figure of an angel,” and Portia, an “angel” in a golden bed, or casket. Portia’s physical attributes establish onl y one of the many similarities we see between character and Queen in Merchant The locales within the play – Venice, Belmont, and Portia’s clandestine bedchamber – can also be interpreted as representing the royal Presence Chamber, Privy Chamber, and Withdrawing Chamber. According to Richard Horwich, Venice is “indeed the publ ic sphere,” associat ed with mercantile


18 activity (191). Thus, when Portia ventures in to Venice, she disguises herself as a man in order to fit into this very public – and patr iarchal – scene. Her waiting woman, Nerissa, displays shock at this idea: “Why, shall we turn to men?” (3.5.78). Portia chastises Nerissa for the bawdy reference and replies th at “I’ll tell thee all my whole device” when she and Nerissa are in the coach on their way to Venice (3.5.81). Portia’s plan of “putting on the pants,” which allows he r to be measured not by her curves and charms but by her brain, creates physical equilibrium for her in the public sphere of Venice. In the early modern era, a woman, no matter how learned, could not practice law or argue before a court simply because of her gender. Ironically, in the public square of the royal Presence Chamber, where the monarch met heads of state, diplomats, Parliament, and pretenders to the throne, Elizabeth would have depended upon those coming before her to view her not as a woman but as a prince, a divinely-appoint ed sovereign who ruled not with the heart but with the head. Indeed, gove rnment in the midto la te-sixteenth century was a masculine business, and the royal househol d remained “a great masculine community” (Neale 64). Several of Elizab eth’s biographers, Neale includ ed, attest to Elizabeth’s frequent practice of referring to herself in masculine terms, a necessary balancing act in the patriarchal environment within which she ruled. Although some historians believe that Elizabeth’s Tilbury speech was written after her death, the pep-talk to the militia during the Spanish Armada crisis is still vi ewed by many biographers as perhaps the most vivid example of her referring to herself as a man. If Venice can be interprete d as the Presence Chamber, where Portia and Elizabeth must allow their masculine traits to dominate, then Belmont can be interpreted as the Privy Chamber, where only those closest to the sovereign are allowed entrance. Belmont


19 represents a dramatic green world where ad vice is given and take n, lovers and friends come and go, and conflicts are settled as ami cably as possible. There, Portia entertains suitors, receives advice from her waiting wo man, and allows Jessica and Lorenzo to set up house. Portia has no need to “put on the pants” in Belmont as she does when she travels to Venice; instead, music plays softly into the cool night, and golden hair is undone, at least a little. Like Belmont, Elizabeth’s Privy Chamber provided a safe place where she talked with councilors and those who had special access to her; she also played cards or chess and perhaps played on the vi rginals (Neale 218). Interestingly, audiences do not get a peek into Portia’s bedchamber in Merchant ; as well, very few were allowed into Elizabeth’s Withdrawing Chamber, wher e the Queen passed the time with a small, intimate circle of favorites (Neale 218). Certainly only a ve ry few men – Robert Dudley, perhaps, and Essex later – would have been allowed into her sleeping quarters; similarly, Portia allows only her husband, Bassanio, in to her private and mysterious realm. Of course, before Bassanio, suitors arri ve to woo the lady of Belmont. In the critical canon, much has been written about th ese characters; indeed, the suitors seem to interest critics as least as much as Portia herself. Richard Kuhns and Barbara Tovey assert that Portia’s listing of her discarded suitors early in the play serves no purpose in the work’s dramatic development and maintain that Shakespeare simply wanted audiences to know that Portia had many suitors of high rank from many different countries (325), a situation that corresponds to that of Elizab eth. The pair goes on to posit that the suitors represent actual writers, men wh o were “the most gift ed, influential, and to Shakespeare – we suspect – the most intere sting writers of the tradition in which he worked” (326). For instance, in their readi ng, the Neapolitan prince represents Boccaccio,


20 since horses and horseback riding ar e symbolically significant in the Decameron (326) and Portia refers to the prince as a “colt” (1.1.39). Their article concludes with the suggestion that Bassanio stands for Shakespe are himself; the cri tics contend that his “literary predecessors have depa rted the scene,” and Shakespeare has become heir to the tradition (331). In addition, Gustav Unge rer seizes upon the hi storical connection between the Prince of Morocco and a Moro ccan sultan of the period named Ahmad alMansur, who was involved in negotiations with Elizabeth and her court around 1589 (89). These historical interpretations provide a backdrop from which to link Portia’s suitors to those of Elizabeth T udor. If Portia is the best ma rriage candidate available in the world of the play – no fewer than nine suitors vie for her hand, and Morocco states that “all the world desires her” (2.7.38) – then Elizabeth was the best marriage candidate available in Europe, a fact not lost on ever y eligible bachelor and widower in her world (Neale 69). Some of her suitors included Ph ilip, King of Spain and widower of her halfsister Mary; the King of Sweden’s eldest s on Eric; the Archdukes Ferdinand and Charles; and various Englishmen, including the Earl of Arundel and Sir William Pickering; this list reflects a hodgepodge of nationalities not un like the list of suitors who seek to wed Portia. Indeed, in 1559, only a year after her accession, ten or twelve ambassadors representing foreign suitors competed for Elizabeth’s hand (Neale 72-75). However, as soon as Elizabeth – or Portia – shut the ga te on one wooer, another, it seems, came knocking. A young heiress/sovereign would qu ite likely find all this romancing exhausting: In her first lines of the play, Port ia states that “by my troth, Nerissa, my little


21 body is aweary of this great world” (1.2.1-2) and Neale maintains that Elizabeth, too, frequently found courtship “wearing” (76). Establishing a link between Portia’s numerous suitors and those of Elizabeth seems fairly straightforward. However, I wish to take the marital connections between character and Queen to another cr itical level. First, I will maintain that Portia’s marital constrictions reflect the restrictions placed on Elizabeth by her father’s will and by her Privy Council and Parliament; s econd, I will assert that Portia ’s rejection of her foreign suitors and her “choice” of a Venetian husband mirror Elizabeth’s reluctance to marry a foreign prince who might have thrown England into religious and political turmoil; and third, I will argue that the ed ict banning the failed suitors’ future marriages in the play represents Elizabeth’s concern that her reject ed suitors would turn to another eligible – and potentially dangerous – sovereign, Mary Stuart, Elizabeth’s rival to the north. Early in the play, Portia laments that she cannot choose her husband; instead, her father’s will requires her to marry the suito r who chooses the casket that contains her portrait. Portia’s resentment spills into wo rds when she speaks to Nerissa: “Oh, me, the word choose I may neither choose who I w ould nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard, Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?” (1.2.22-26). Portia cannot choose – “The lott’ry of my destiny/Bars me the right of volunta ry choosing” (2.1.15-16) – but she cunningly manipulates the casket scene with Bassanio to help him make the correct selection. Although many critics, foremost among them C. L. Barber, believe that Portia does not control this scene, it seems strikingly appare nt that her attendant’s song in Act 3, Scene 2, with three words that rhyme with “lead” – “bred,” “head,” and “nourished” – and the


22 song’s reference to a bell, which often is cr afted from lead, lead Bassanio to pick the leaden casket (63-72). Moreover, in her spee ch leading up to the song, Portia uses words that either begin with the letter L or stress the L s ound fourteen times (40-61). In addition, the song itself suggests th at lovers should look beyond appearances, as in the shiny gold and silver caskets, and di g deeper to discover substance: “Tell me where is fancy bred,/Or in th e heart or in the head?” (3.2.6364). According to the song, the glitter of outward appearances ultimately dulls: “It is engendered in the eyes,/With gazing fed, and fancy dies” ( 67-68). A sovereign searchi ng for true companionship undoubtedly would desire her lover to see be yond the jeweled gowns and mountains of ducats; as well, a sovereign also would expect a potential consort to embrace her rule not only over her realm but also over her roost. Ba ssanio indeed learns quickly to listen to Portia, just as Leicester likely learned ear ly on to heed the demands of his mistress. Moreover, although Portia does guide Bassanio in his choi ce of casket, she does not technically violate the letter of her father’s will; instead, she cleverly maneuvers around the spirit of it to get what she wants: a co mpanionate marriage to a man who, at least on the surface, is as much in love with her as she with him and, perhaps more important, is willing to let his wife maintain power. Likewise, by the lottery of her destiny as heir to the throne of England, Elizabeth Tudor faced – and also shrewdly evaded – pa ternal constrictions on her choice of mate, outlined in her dead father’s Third Succession Act. In it, Henry VIII settled the crown first on Edward and his heirs “lawfully begotte n;” next on any of his own future lawfully begotten children; then finally on his daughter s, Mary and Elizabeth, and their lawful heirs (Warnicke 53-54). Further, Henry ordered that if eith er daughter married without


23 the consent of Edward’s Regency Council, th ey would lose their claim to the throne; moreover, Warnicke observes that by limiti ng their choice of husbands, who likely would govern for them, Henry could justify permitti ng his daughters to inhe rit the crown (54). After Elizabeth became Queen, her Privy C ouncil and Parliament also attempted to control her marital status and choice of ma te. As early as 1559, the House of Commons urged her to consider marriage (Neale 74); William Cecil, her beloved and trusted advisor, wrote to his mistress from Scotla nd that he hoped “ G od would direct your heart to procure a father for your children, a nd so shall the children of all your realm bless your seed ” (Weir 92). Throughout he r reign, the Privy Council and Parliament urged Elizabeth to marry, but like Portia, Elizabeth made he r own rules, choosing instead a companionate, long-term relationship with th e Earl of Leicester. In both Belmont and the Tudor Court, there was but one mistress and no master. Portia rejects all of her fo reign suitors and instead choos es a Venetian like herself. Indeed, Portia does more than reject: she deni grates all of the suito rs except Bassanio, commenting that the County Palatine “frowns” too much; that Monsieur Le Bon mocks everything and anything, including a bird; that Falconbridge cannot speak any language except English; and that the German nephe w of the Duke of Saxony is a drunk (1.2.4585). Furthermore, after Morocco fails in his choi ce of casket, Portia u tters “let all of his complexion choose me so” (2.7.79). I submit th at this rejection and denigration of foreigners in the play represents Elizab eth’s political and re ligious concerns over marrying a foreign prince. After her half-s ister Mary announced that she would wed Philip of Spain, the English people reacted violently and negatively, although ultimately, the marriage whiplashed the country back in to Catholicism. Elizabeth remembered the


24 reaction to her sister’s uni on with a foreign prince when she broke off eight years of marriage negotiations with the Archduke Char les, who refused to agree to become a Protestant (Weir 192). The threat of religious and political turmoil in the country if a queen married a foreigner was real; in fact, it was one of the major prejudices against queens regnant. In 1549, the famous Protesta nt Hugh Latimer reminded Henry in a court sermon of the dangers surrounding the possible succession of his sisters, who might turn to foreigners for husbands. Not only did Eng lishmen fear yet another change of state religion, they also feared th at a foreign king would subvert the laws of their country (Warnicke 54-55). In the casket ordeal, Portia cautions Morocco before he chooses that if he fails, he must swear “Never to speak to lady af terward/In way of marriage” (2.1.41-42). Unfortunately for him, he agrees; similarl y, Aragon vows “Never in my life/To woo a maid in way of marriage” if he fails in his choice (2.9.12-13). What dramatic purpose does this marriage ban serve? Perhaps it increases the play ’s dramatic tension, but I suspect that a historical connection exists as well. As Elizabeth gingerly closed the door on unwanted suitors, Mary Stuart, anointed Quee n, Catholic, and a viab le claimant to the English throne, threw hers open. Mary was th e widow of the French king Francis II and a worthy catch in her own right. Neale remarks that suitors who had spent time and money wooing Elizabeth were turning to Mary, a woma n “less virginal and elusive” (104). Some of the suitors’ names circulating on courtier s’ lips included Don Carlos of Spain, the Archduke Charles, and the kings of Sweden and Denmark. Any of these princes, if married to the Queen of Scots, would likely regard the English throne as a “tempting morsel” (Neale 104). Elizabeth attempted to ma nage this serious threat by playing coy


25 with her suitors and stringing them along until the very last possible moment; eventually, however, many tired of Elizabeth’s amorous ga mes and turned to Mary. Keenly aware of this dangerous situation, Elizabeth went so fa r as to push Leicester as a potential husband for her beautiful Scottish rival. However, the Queen of Scots ultimately married Lord Darnley, an English subject, in 1565 (Neale 130135). Within this historical context, I contend that Merchant accentuates this romantic riva lry between the two Queens through its draconian restrictions on the fa iled suitors: Elizabeth may have wanted to control her rejected suitors’ choices of mates; in contrast, Portia does control them through her edict. Indeed, the play can be interpreted as oblique ly criticizing Elizabeth for meddling in the romantic affairs of others while neglecting her own. Never being allowed to marry seems a hyperbolically harsh punishment for simply choosing the wrong box. In the game of love, Portia comes out on top. Without undermining the letter of her father’s will, she wins Bassanio. Late r, she cunningly lets him know who runs the household and the kingdom. She secures her ri ng intact – representing loyalty to the feminized monarchy – and at the play’s e nd, she and Bassanio drift into the unseen bedchamber to happily consummate their union. On the other hand, Elizabeth loved a man whom she could not marry, all the wh ile watching him enjoy at least two and possibly three marriages in his lifetime. According to Neale, the Earl of Leicester had competed with princes, staked his throw on th e most glittering of all prizes, and lost (252). Near the end of his life, the Earl wrote to William Cec il lamenting his lost love: “ almost more than a bondman many a year toge ther, so long as one drop of comfort was left of any hope ” (Neale 252). Both Queen and favorite likely gave up an emotional pound of flesh for their doomed roman ce, a dear price to pay indeed.


26 Besides parallels in physical descripti on, locales, and the i ssues of love and marriage, other comparisons can be drawn between character and Queen. Throughout the play, more frequently than any other characte r, Portia employs the language of power and ownership. Despite the critics who see her as just another dependent woman moving from one Sugar-Daddy to another, Portia maintains a sense of her own sovereignty even after she marries Bassanio. From the beginning, Por tia commands respect through her princely language: “Therefore be advised” she tell s Morocco when instructing him about the marriage restriction if he fails the casket test (2.1.42). Late r, after she has won Bassanio, she states that she is “Queen o’er myself” as she declares herself and all her worldly goods as belonging to her lover (3.2.169). Alt hough she politely offers her mansion and servants to Bassanio, a few lines later Port ia makes clear who unambiguously controls Belmont’s purse strings. When faced with Antonio’s forfeit of the bond, Portia, like a prince, takes charge, demanding: “What, no more?/Pay him six thousand, and deface the bond;/Double six thousand, and then treble that” (3.2.299300). As Karen Newman points out, these words are not kind offers fr om a subservient wife; they are commands, enunciated in the declarative voice (32). A fe w lines later, she agai n barks orders like a monarch, this time telling Bassanio to “First go with me to church and call me wife” (3.2.303). Throughout the remainder of the play, Po rtia speaks in the first person singular regarding her goods and property, an odd thing for an early modern woman to do – unless she is a sovereign. For instance, in Act 3, Scene 4 alone, she uses the word “my” to identify her household (line 25), her people (37) and her coach (82), goods and property that should, under early mode rn law, belong to her husband. In Act 5, after she and Nerissa return from Venice and the trial of Shylock, Portia st ates that she sees a light


27 burning in “ my hall” (5.1.89); a few lines later, she tells Nerissa to go in and “give order to my servants” (118-119). Finally, in the last lines of the pl ay, with her husband standing next to her, Portia states that she has not yet entered into “ my house” (272-273) [Newman 32; emphasis mine]. Bassanio, meanwhile, never utters a contradictory word. Of course, Elizabeth would have used th e royal “we” when speaking of herself or of her possessions. However, the play reve rses and highlights the irony of a single woman using “we” by having a married woman use “my.” Furthermore, Prosser argues that Bassanio plans to reverse his and Portia ’s power roles after th ey marry, but that his “unquestioning acceptance” of her commands afte r the news of Antonio’s forfeit of the bond suggests that he has not forgotten her authority (27). Indeed, no one forgets her authority, just as none of her male Privy Counc ilors or courtiers forgot Elizabeth Tudor’s authority: through their command of language, neither character nor Queen allows it. Moreover, by using what Prosser calls “near ly identical means” (27), character and Queen achieve similar political ends: they le gitimate and maintain their claim to power through the use of precise, masculine language. Small pronouns such as “my” may be easy to overlook, but coming from a married woman in the early modern era, they are the dramatic equivalent of tiny rubi es in a queen regnant’s crown. Indeed, speech plays a crucial role in Merchant particularly with Portia; similarly, speeches played a crucial role w ith Elizabeth, who was known as an expert linguist whose “baffling powers as a talker justified themse lves” (Neale 96). Although similarities between Portia’s and Elizabeth’ s rhetorical styles will be examined more fully later in this work, it is prudent for us now to view the play’s trial scene in relation to two historical incidents. In the early modern era, the only weapon a woman had against


28 the patriarchy was the ability to out-maneuver a man with words. In the trial scene, Portia does just that: she engages in a verbal ta ngo with Shylock and the court and ends up dazzling both to the point of acquiescence. Setting up the trial scene with her longest speech, twenty-two lines, Portia opens th e argument with a definition of mercy, imploring Shylock to show mercy toward Ant onio and not dissect a portion of his breast (4.1.182-203). Intriguingly, in this speech ther e are six references to sovereignty: “It becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown ” (186-187); “His scepter shows the force of temporal power” (188); “Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings ” (190); and “It is enthroned in the hearts of kings ” (192) [emphasis mine]. Por tia’s “quality of mercy” speech, with its frequent references to the monarchy, buttresses the link between character and Queen. Portia ends the trial by forcing Shylock to accept from the court at least what passes for mercy – which he woul d not give at the beginning of the scene: “Down therefore, and beg mercy of the Duk e” (361). Her earlier words, that mercy is “Twice blest:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (184-185), ironically haunt the end of the courtroom scene when the defeat ed and destroyed Shyloc k states that he is contented. Portia has brought the argument full circle, and won, although whether or not she is truly merciful has been much debated. Two possible historical connections info rm this famous trial scene speech. According to Janet Green, in 1597, Elizabeth, then sixty-three, let loose with an impromptu drubbing of the Polish ambassador in Latin when he insulted her publicly for interfering with his country’s shipping trade with Spain (987). Green writes that “with brief but scorching words, E lizabeth not only annihilated th e unfortunate ambassador but reaffirmed her own intellectual and oratorical prowess, and she powerfully demonstrated


29 her majestic authority” (988). The speech, though short, was recorded in what Green calls “an unusual number of manuscript copies,” wh ich likely attests to its popularity (988). Because of its wide circulation, it is possible that in the speech in the trial scene, the play mimics Elizabeth’s rhetorical triumph. The second historical connec tion centers on the trial and execution of Dr. Lopez, which occurred in 1594. Greenblatt argues that Shylock represents Lopez, Elizabeth’s physician who was accused of trying to poison he r. Moreover, Elliott Baker believes that Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was written by Elizabeth; according to Baker, the Queen, who never believed that Lopez wa s guilty, had the speech forcibly inserted, perhaps by Sir Robert Cecil, her secretary and the son of William Cecil (29). While this thesis is certainly questionabl e, it is not implausible that Portia’s opening speech on mercy – with its six references to monarchy – might have been inserted into the play in response to Lopez’s trial, confinement in th e Tower, and subsequent execution. Further, Greenblatt’s suggestion that Shakespeare ma y have witnessed Lopez’s execution adds relevance to Portia’s imploring sovereigns to show mercy, although as noted above, the degree to which Portia ultimately shows merc y to Shylock remains a critical crux of the play. However, whatever we think about the play’s final judgment, which strips Shylock of everything that he considers meaningf ul, including both his money and his faith, at least, unlike Lopez, he is not stripped of his life. Signifi cantly, both Baker and Bevington, among others, date Merchant between 1594 and 1598, a time frame that fits both historical scenarios discussed above. Lastly, while Merchant is a play about love, it is al so a play about money. In the late sixteenth century, England was moving from feudalism to capitalism, and tension


30 existed between the rising mercantile class and the aristocracy, wh ich grew poorer by the decade. In his book Drama of a Nation Walter Cohen argues that the aristocracy, deprived of its traditional military functi on by the natural protection of the English Channel as well as the futility of Tudor im perialism, grew increasingly commercial, civilian, and common (122-123). Cohen offers a fascinating parallel between the aristocracy and the rising me rchant class and Antonio and Bassanio, the two principal Christian male characters in Merchant In his New Historicis t article, Cohen reads Antonio as “the harbinger” of modern cap italism while he interprets Bassanio as representing aristocratic la nded wealth (771-772). According to Cohen, the tripartite marriage among these two men and Portia at the end of the play mirrors “precisely this interclass harmony between aristo cratic landed wealth and me rcantile capital, with the former dominant” (772). Furthermore, Po rtia’s “integrative solution reveals the compatibility of rigor and freedom, of bourge ois self-interest and aristocratic social responsibility” (Cohen 776). Ind eed, Portia resolves the issu e of Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship by forcing Antonio to return her ring to Bassanio, thus sealing the three in a mutually beneficial relationshi p: Antonio’s ships magically re turn full loaded, and he is repaid for his risk; Bassanio understands – and respects – the meaning of loyalty to his mistress, and for that loyalty he will be richly rewarded; and Portia maintains control over both men. However, if we focus our hist orical lens more sharply, we can perhaps deepen these interpretations. First, Antonio’ s words in Act 5, Scene 1, “I am th’unhappy subject of these quarrels” (238), can be read as a reference to the aristocracy’s concern over the merchant class’s newly made wealth. If Antonio is the harbinger of capitalism, then he/it indeed would be the subject of many disputes between merchants and the


31 landed aristocracy, likely with Elizabeth as arbitrator. Further, assuming that Antonio represents the merchant class and Bassanio the aristocracy, I assert that the love and adoration that Antonio feels for Bassanio throughout the play corresponds to the merchant class’s collective l onging for a title; as well, Bassanio’s feelings toward Antonio seem rooted solely in financial ne ed, thus corresponding to the aristocracy’s thirst for funds. Finally, a remote reference by Nerissa regarding Bassanio as a “soldier and scholar” (1.2.111) cements the idea of Bassa nio as a member of the landed – but now broke – aristocracy, since the typical profession of an aristocrat in the early modern era was soldiering. Elizabeth, too, formed a quasi-tripartite marriage between herself and what Susan Ronald calls her “gentlemen a dventurers” and her “merchant adventurers” (xvi), groups that I maintain correspond to Bassanio and Antonio, respectively. In her book The Pirate Queen Ronald outlines how these two dispar ate groups of adventurers “eventually deliver the security for the realm that bot h the queen and the c ountry craved” (xvi). Elizabeth felt that she needed two things to secure her realm: peace and money. Through her gentlemen adventurers, Elizabeth gained security for England; through her merchant adventurers, she gained wealth, albeit through plunder and pirating (Ronald xvi). Furthermore, Ronald believes that the term “adventurer” in Elizabeth’s era referred to anyone willing to take a risk (xix); indeed, Ronald co mments that Elizabeth set a precedent: anyone wanting royal favor must venture his own wealth for Queen and country (22), a theme woven throughout Merchant and underscored in lines such as “I stand for sacrifice” (3.2.57) and “ Who chooset h me must give and hazard all he hath ” (2.7.9), a reference by Morocco to the insc ription on the leaden casket. Antonio, as


32 representative of the rising merchant class, risks his fo rtune for the survival and happiness of Portia (Queen) and Bassanio/the aristocracy (country). In the end, through Portia’s political astuteness and sharp rhetoric, all three win. A master manipulator and politician, Eli zabeth continued her father’s policy of “fusing” different factions within her court. Indeed, Ronald maintains that fusion was a recurrent theme throughout her reign and that the essence of her st atecraft depended on the concept of compromise (2 3). Under Elizabeth’s rule, th e lines between merchant and aristocracy blurred, and many of Elizabeth’ s top advisors, including William Cecil and Nicholas Bacon, were members of a “fresh risi ng class of merchant aristocracy” (Ronald 18). Moreover, John Dee, her trusted astrol oger who coined the phrase “the British Empire” in his work The Petty Navy Royal in 1577 (Ronald 19-20), was the son of a textile merchant. Ronald further asserts that merchants and landed gentlemen, who excelled as Elizabeth’s adventurers, learned over time to act in concert (21), just as Bassanio and Antonio quickly learn to mesh their desires and needs under Portia’s roof and rule. Examined individually, these links betw een Portia and Elizabeth Tudor may be rejected as coincidences or perhaps even fa nciful reading. But audiences – and critics – do not view a play in bits and pieces: they see it as an entity, just as a suitor gazing at a portrait sees an entire imag e, not only a brushstroke here and there. When viewed holistically, the similarities between character and Queen in Merchant paint a picture that cannot, and should not, be ignored.


33 Chapter Three Portia as Representative of the Learned Renaissance Woman The evidence strongly suggests that within the world of the play, Portia serves as a representative of Elizabeth Tudor. Howe ver, when examining Portia’s impressive rhetorical skills, particularly within the trial scene, I assert that she represents not only Elizabeth Tudor but also the learned Renai ssance woman. Elizabeth Tudor was a learned woman, perhaps the most learned in Engla nd. Not only do Portia and Elizabeth possess similar styles of rhetoric, which this chapter will explore, but also w ithin the play, Portia employs dialectic and logic to erode Shylock’s claim to the bond, elements of language that only a learned woman (or man) woul d have studied. Learned women were not unusual in the Renaissance: these lear ned women included Elizabeth’s greatgrandmother, the Lady Margaret, Countess of Richmond; her step-sister Mary; and Lady Jane Grey, who usurped Mary Tudor’s claim to the throne for twelve days before perishing on the scaffold and was considered by several Cambridge scholars as one of the most learned women in England (Neale 54) Indeed, for commoners, women’s education in the early modern era recei ved short shrift, but for some high-born women, a liberal humanist education was not out of reach, due in large part to the actions of Sir Thomas More, one of the earliest advocates of cl assical training for women (Warnicke 4). According to Neale, Lady Margaret, a pi oneer in women’s e ducation in England, knew French well enough to translate into Engl ish “The Mirror of Gold for the Sinful Soul” (10). Moreover, Margaret More, Sir Th omas More’s daughter, mastered Greek and


34 Latin and had some knowledge of philosophy, astronomy, physics, logic, rhetoric, and music. Indeed, women such as Lady Margaret and Margaret More provided the “pattern of the age” (Neale 10). Elizabet h joined this elite group with help from her Cambridge tutors, including John Cheke and Roger As cham (Neale 11). At age ten, she was immersed in Italian and French and alrea dy had a strong grounding in Greek and Latin. Furthermore, according to Ascham, the Queen “ admired, above all, modest metaphors and comparisons of contraries well put toge ther and contrasting felicitously with one another ” (Neale 12-14). Many historians cl aim that Elizabeth t ypically organized her speeches around contraries and repetition. Acco rding to Green, much of the speech that verbally admonished the Polish ambassador empl oyed the rhetorical device of antithesis, the same rhetoric that Elizabeth used so eff ectively in her famous Tilbury speech (997). I will focus on these similar styles of rhetor ic between character and Queen to support my assertion that Portia represents both E lizabeth and the learned Renaissance woman. In the trial scene, Portia uses repetition to underscore her theme of mercy as she systematically dissects Shylock’s claim to the bond. From her opening line, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” (4.1.172), to her final statement, “Clerk, draw a deed of gift” (392), Portia utters the word “mercy” or its derivative ten ti mes. Moreover, as she implores Shylock to be merciful, she employs “comparisons of contraries” first to give Shylock what he wants and then to strip him of his prize. Fo r example, Portia begins by noting that Shylock’s suit is of a “strange nature” but th at Venetian law “cannot impugn” him in seeking it (4.1.175-177). Portia contin ues by cautioning Shylock to show mercy: he holds the power, and the decision to excise a pound of flesh from Antonio rests solely in his hands. However, by the end of the scene, Portia has rhetorically turned the tables,


35 stripping Shylock of his power and his pride: “Down theref ore, and beg mercy of the Duke” (4.1.361). Through cunning argumentation, Po rtia reverses the agent and recipient of power. Indeed, by Portia’s allowing the terms of the bond, she negates Shylock’s claim, stating that Shylock may have his pound of flesh but that he cannot spill “one drop of Christian blood” (4.1.308). This physical im possibility, this juxta position of contraries – “take your pound of flesh, but do not spill any blood” – alters the tempo of the trial and places Shylock on the defensive: “Is that the law?” (312), a baffled and deflated Shylock mutters as the scene moves toward its close. Another example of Portia’s use of antithetical rhetoric appears in the scene when Bassanio chooses the correct casket. As Portia offers herself to her soon-to-be husband, she counterbalances contrasting ideas, leav ing audiences – and pe rhaps Bassanio himself – wondering if she is actually submitting or no t. In Act 3, Scene 2, Portia refers to herself as “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticd ; …she is not bred so dull but she can learn” (159-162). She continues a few lines later with “But now I was the lord/Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,/Queen o’er myself” (167-169). Th rough this skillful balancing of polarities, Portia plays coy with Bassanio, even as she adeptly lets him know who remains in charge. Indeed, Portia is no “unl essoned girl;” she is a queen in charge of herself and a household of servants. She is not “unschooled;” she is a lord and, at least part-time, a doctor of law. This rhetorical fox hunt leaves Bassanio (and audiences) in a dither, and just as Elizabeth Tudor was no “weak and feeble woman” but the anointed sovereign of England, Portia remains qu een over herself and everyone else. Portia’s rhetorical skills indeed seem strikingly similar to those of Elizabeth Tudor; moreover, the speeches of both charac ter and Queen rely heavily on logic and


36 dialectic, elements included under the umbrella of the trivium in classical studies. The genre of classical stud ies divided the disciplines of th e seven liberal arts into two categories: the quadrivium, or mathematical, and the trivium, or linguistic. According to Joan Gibson, the trivium consisted of three components: grammar, di alectic, and rhetoric (10). Typically, rhetoric rece ived the greatest emphasis in the training for public service until the educational reforms that occurred between the eleventh and sixteenth centuries. Renaissance humanism, however, re stored rhetoricÂ’s importance, placing it at the center of its educational theory, at least for me n; in contrast, womenÂ’s education in the Renaissance lay anchored in grammar. Gibson co ntends that rhetorical training served as the dividing point between the education of men and women, and the more specialized and persuasive aspects of logic and rhetoric were usually available only to male students (11). Since women, it was assumed, did not partic ipate in public affairs, they needed both less education and an education of a different nature (Gibson 12). However, I argue that through PortiaÂ’s rh etoric throughout the pl ay, but especially in the trial scene, Merchant makes a resonant statement regarding the importance of rhetorical and dialectical education for women. Through PortiaÂ’s magnificent legal defense of Antonio, the play shows that wo men can out-argue and out-think even the sliest of men; indeed, no other character in the play employs a thesis-antithesis pattern of argument, and no other characterÂ’s speeches ac hieve the level of rhetorical skill that PortiaÂ’s demonstrate. Therefor e, I assert that Portia, as a representative of the learned Renaissance woman, also epitomizes the typica lly masculine elements of rhetoric and dialectic in the language trivium as opposed to the typically feminine element of grammar. Nowhere in the play does Portia translate Greek poetry ; however, throughout


37 the play she constructs sound, ev en devastating rhetorical ar guments. She wins the trial by logically eroding Shylock’ s claim to the bond, and she maintains control over Bassanio and Antonio by logically arguing for th e value of her ring. One of the conflicts within the play – Portia’s role as both an apparently obedient wife and a strong, independent, smart woman – perhaps reflect s the Renaissance controversy over the expanding educational opportunitie s for women and the lack of an acceptable social role for them. Indeed, women whose education best owed authority in the early modern era were often pictured as fierce, armed maid ens and addressed as honorary males (Gibson 16), much as Portia is a ddressed and disguised in Merchant Lisa Jardine contends that Renaissanc e views on learned women, with all their contradictory feelings about the value of education for females, are reproduced in the plot strategies of Shakespeare’s learned women, whose noble actions, such as saving Antonio, also mobilize a set of expectations of “knowingness,” of sexual unruliness and ungovernability (16). She cites the ambivalent attitudes in Merchant as manifesting themselves clearly in Portia’s betrothal speech to Bassanio, in which her “womanly deficiencies” contradict ever ything that the rest of the play says about her (17). According to Jardine, the play ends with the husband’s ownership and control of his wife’s “ring,” thus containing any unruliness that the learned Portia may have inspired (17). Jardine concludes by seizing upon th e “serious and deep-rooted ambivalence” toward the educated woman in the early modern era (18). To be sure the fantastic irony of the age lies in an educated, learned woman’s rule of England for forty-five years. Although Jardine correctly stat es that the Renaissance st ruggled with the idea of education for women, I counter that within Merchant Portia’s “unruliness,” or, more


38 precisely, her power, is not contained; in f act, Portia gives the play’s final order, declaring in Act 5, Scene 1, “Let us go in ;/And charge us there upon inter gatories/And we will answer all things faithfully” (297299). These lines do not indicate Bassanio’s control over his wife, and although Gratiano ma y indeed end the play with a sexual pun, Portia commands the language of the play from start to finish.


39 Chapter Four Portia as the Merchant of Venice Throughout the play, the language of co mmerce surrounds Portia: she employs it to describe herself; others employ it to desc ribe her. However, for years critics have anointed either Shylock, or more often Ant onio, as the merchant of the play’s title. Nowhere in the review of the literature does anyone claim that the title should apply to Portia, although some critics tiptoe around the id ea. For example, Szatek refers to Portia as a “sovereign,” a “vigorous tradeswoman,” and a “successful merchant,” but she does not go so far as to say that Portia is the merchant of the play’s tit le (335-348). In the last sentence in his article, Geary writes that Po rtia “ultimately proves herself the most adept businessman of them all” (68), and this assert ion is certainly true, because Portia controls everything and everyone at the play’s end. U ltimately, however, we must return to the play’s language, and there we may perhaps find the answer to the ironic question that Portia posits: “Which is the merchant here…?” (4.1.172). In Portia’s and Bassanio’s betrot hal speeches in Act 3, Scene 2, Bassanio introduces the mercantile language after he c hooses the correct caske t and observes that he comes “by note” (140). Bassanio continues the commercial metaphor in the final lines of his speech, telling Portia that he will not believe that he has won her “until confirmed, signed, and ratified by you” ( 148). Portia further develops the metaphor, using the terms “account” (155-157) and “sum” (157-158) twice and “to term in gross” (158) once. When Bassanio learns that Antonio has forfeited the bond, Portia opens her purse-strings and


40 offers six-thousand ducats; later she doubles and triples that amount, saying to Bassanio that “you are dear bought” (3.3.313 ). After the trial scene, Po rtia declares, “And therein do account myself well paid/My mind was neve r yet more mercenary” (4.1.416-417). At the end of the play, the mercantile language re sumes, with Portia issuing an “oath of credit” (5.1.246) when addressing Bassanio ab out the ring and telli ng Antonio that “you shall be his surety” (254). A lthough other characters in the play refer to Antonio as a merchant, including the Duke and Gratiano, mer cantile language does not define him, nor does he employ it to define himself. On the other hand, Shylock speaks almost exclusively of money and prope rty, but often fails to refer to the trading of goods and services, focusing solely on amassing and hoa rding, unlike Portia, who seems to float through the drama making deals. Actions always speak louder than words, a nd Portia’s decisive actions prove even more significant than the commercial language that she uses and that others use to describe her. No character in the play driv es the drama forward as does Portia. Certainly Shylock lusts after his bond, but Portia steers the double plot: she secures her marriage to a companionate partner; she intervenes in the trial to save Antonio’s life (and to preserve her marriage); she punishes Shylock; and she restores Antonio’s ships intact. Indeed, Portia behaves like a master trader and negotia tor, far more than the other characters in the play, including Antonio, Shylock, or even Bassanio, although he ultimately maneuvers to get what he wants: a lady richly left, albeit only with help from Portia’s guiding hand. Portia exchanges goods and servic es – a life of leisure in Belmont for Bassanio; an expert legal mind to save her husband’s friend – in exchange for stability, loyalty, and companionship, commodities that for her have value. Interestingly, Szatek


41 cites the Oxford English Dictionary in defining “merchandise,” the earlier term for “commerce,” as the trading of numerous goods and services (326). Furthermore, Szatek maintains that Portia sees Bassanio only as “one more commodity she has purchased in a carefully designed, commercializing, political deal ” (335), and that she is more akin to a Venetian entrepreneurial male than to “an idyllic pastoral nymph” (342). Indeed, I maintain that Portia is more akin to Elizabeth Tudor, who famously counted her realm’s coins in an attempt to lift her country ou t of debt. Neale claims that Elizabeth managed to cut ordinary expend iture for her court to about 135,000 pounds a year, which left a surplus and helped liquida te her debts (296). Moreover, he writes that Elizabeth’s greatness lay in her parsimony a nd resolute financial sense (101). Wallace MacCaffrey concurs, stating that control of finance became one of the central pillars of Elizabeth’s entire system of government (382). Elizabeth cont rolled the purse-strings, and those who control the money with in a marriage or a monarchy maintain power, a rule that Portia clearly understands. Szat ek sees things less benevolen tly and contends that through Portia and Belmont, Shakespeare aimed to emphasize that “sovereigns ought not to manipulate commerce to correspond to their own economic and political ends, such as Elizabeth I’s crafty authorization of pi racy and of the slave trade…” (349). However, using our New Historicist lens as a viewfinder, I offer a contrasting scenario: sovereigns will indeed manipulate commerce, especially if they need to buttress their countries’ financial coffers to fend off fo reign invaders, particul arly Catholic ones. In the play, Portia adeptly manages Bassanio and Antonio by joining them with her in a tripartite marriage. They wiggle at her f eet like lapdogs, and she showers them with goods, money, and refuge in her palace in ex change for a companionate marriage and


42 harmony between her husband and his friend. In contrast, Portia punishes Shylock, metaphorically castrating him and rendering him financially and politically impotent for, we can assume, practicing usury. According to historians, however, Elizabethans did not detest usury; instead, many Elizabethan thinke rs such as John Dee tied trade and national defense to the prestige of the British mona rchy, focusing less on the church’s rejection of usury than on how commerce could serve G od and nation (Aaron K itch 147). Moreover, Kitch maintains that some Elizabethan arch itects of commercial policy such as Thomas Gresham approached the idea of usury from th e perspective of nationa l interest; such an approach shifted the question of usury from individual ethics to national politics (147148). Using Kitch’s context of nati onal politics, if Portia is in deed the merchant within the play, and her language and act ions suggest that she is, sh e has every right to protect her goods and services (Bassanio, Antonio, Belm ont, the Venetian rule of law) from a threat. Comparatively, if Elizabeth is the merc hant-in-chief of her realm, she must protect her property and people from threats fore ign and domestic, even if that means “manipulating commerce.” To that end, I assert that Shylock stands not for usury in the play but for any generic or, more likely, Cat holic threat to Elizabeth’s realm, perhaps most notably from Spain or even Mary St uart, Queen of Scots. Although Elizabeth executed Mary in 1587, the Catholic thre at hung over England through the following year, when the Spanish Armada attempted to invade the island; the domestic threat from Catholics continued even longer. Indeed, se veral lines in the pl ay allude to this generic/Catholic threat. First, in the trial s cene, Portia expressly st ates that if Shylock sheds “one drop of Christian blood” in his quest for his pound of flesh, his lands and


43 goods will be confiscated by Venice (4.1.308-309). The word “Christian” can perhaps be read to mean “Protestant,” since both the Pr otestants and the Cat holics regarded each other as infidels. Furthermore, in the same scene, Portia upholds the Duke’s ruling that half of Shylock’s wealth shoul d go to the state, not to Ant onio – although later the Duke remits this appropriation into a fine only – a dding to the idea of S hylock as standing for a threat not only to Antonio but also to the nation (4.1.371). In addition, Greenblatt’s theory that Shylock represents the ill-fated Dr. Lopez reinforces th e association of the Jewish usurer with the Catholic threat beca use his accusers thought that Lopez was in the pay of Spain. Finally, I contend that the act of cutting off the pound of flesh and Portia’s concern that Antonio, who stands for the merc hant class, might bleed to death represent Elizabeth’s concern that a fore ign invader would financially bl eed her merchant class into bankruptcy if the country engaged in a war. Additionally, Portia states that Bassanio, who represents the landed aristocracy, is “dear bought,” and she will “love (him) dear,” suggesting that she will use any means possibl e to keep her aristocratic soldier from going to war against a foreign threat ( 3.3.313), as Elizabeth often attempted with Leicester and with Essex, bot h of whom eventually persuaded their sovereign to allow them to lead forces in the Ne therlands and Irela nd, respectively. Antonio and Shylock demonstrate little, if any, business acumen. Antonio loses ships and almost his life; Shylock loses his daughter, his ducats, and his religion. However, Portia loses nothing and gains ev erything, evidence indeed of a successful merchant. Scholars suggest that Shakespeare cr afted his titles carefully, and I maintain that the title of Merchant is interrogative, deliberate ly left open for audiences’ interpretations, much like the titles of th e other comedies. Using New Historicism as a


44 critical methodology, the muddled question b ecomes clearer, because it is Portia who appears unambiguously in the viewfinder.


45 Chapter Five Conclusion I have attempted to demonstrate that Merchant invites audiences to interpret Portia, one of Shakespeare’s most intri guing and powerful female characters, as multidimensional. First, I argue that the ev idence indicates that Portia stands for Elizabeth Tudor. Next, I assert that Portia, as a representative of the learned Renaissance woman, stands for the traditionally masculine elements of rhetoric and dialectic, two of the three elements that comprised the language trivium in classica l studies. Finally, I submit that the language and actions of Portia in vite us to read her as the merchant of the play’s title. In closing, I wish to offer so me additional considerations on character and Queen to help put our New Historic ist reading into perspective. For all the patriarchy and misogyny that surrounded her, Elizabeth was a decidedly modern woman. Neale insists that there was “a touch of feminism” in the way that she protected her rights; moreover, he contends that the Queen’s mind was “essentially modern” (180, 259). Playing coy with suitors, mani pulating restrictive edicts in an attempt to find some happiness, and punishing intruders and threats to her realm demonstrated Elizabeth’s strength as a monarc h; moreover, the necessity that she refer to herself in masculine terms says as much a bout the myopia of her era as it does about her political savvy. Elizabeth ruled for forty-fi ve years, stabilized England’s economy and religion, staved off the Catholic threat, a nd survived more than a dozen assassination attempts. She protected her rights as an a nointed sovereign, as the law and God allowed.


46 She pampered favorites and punished traitors In a word, she was a powerbroker: in exchange for her favor, she expected loyalty, service, and fealty to the crown. Men who abided by her rules grew w ealthy and powerful; men who di d not were often treated severely. Within the play, Portia conducts business in much the same way. She too shows more than a touch of feminism as she goes about protecting her ri ghts as a woman and her goods and property as a landlord. She c unningly maneuvers to get the husband she wants; she intervenes and uses her intelligence to thwart a threat to her happiness and to her realm; she punishes all those who would defy her: all this, while staying true to the letter of the law, as a sovereign must. Like Elizabeth, she also ri chly rewards those who understand the meaning of loyalty. Portia is a powerbroker as well, controlling all the deals and relationships in the play through e ither stealth or strengt h, thus becoming both the fox and the lion. Perhaps the most daunting question that critics face when reading Portia as a strong woman is the question of sacrifice: doe s Portia sacrifice any of her power when she marries Bassanio? I maintain that she doe s not. The play’s language does not support her relinquishment of pow er; indeed, her last word of th e drama is “faithfully” (5.1.299), a fitting close for a character who demands feal ty from her subjects. Moreover, I contend that the play invites readers to see that learned Renaissance women were intelligent enough to find a balance between duty and hom e and politically savvy enough to make everyone else see that as well. The play’s conclusion with a misogynistic sexual pun on Nerissa’s ring does not mean that Portia’s power is contained, as many critics attest. Portia’s husband does not utter the remark; indee d, he refers to his wife as “sweet doctor”


47 (284) in his final words of th e play. Antonio, the merchant of traditional readings, states that “I am dumb” in his last utterance (279). These are not the words of mighty merchants or powerful, controlling husbands; they ar e the words of respect and submission. As a comedy, Merchant ’s ending fits neatly into th e early modern pattern: the pairs of lovers marry and live ha ppily ever after; the strife of the real world concludes; the admirable characters return to th e bucolic green world where music abounds. However, peering through our Ne w Historicist lens, we see that the play also attempts to resolve several relevant issues of the day. First, Elizabeth/Po rtia joins the merchant class as represented by Antonio and the aristocracy as represented by Bassanio in a mutually beneficial relationship for England/Venice. Second, the trial settlement allows Antonio/the merchant class to be paid back fo r its risk, so that Bassanio/the aristocracy is free and clear. Next, Antonio/the merchant cl ass is rewarded for its risk-taking when Portia returns Antonio’s ships “richly come to harbor” (5.1.27 7). Finally, Elizabeth/Portia teaches the value of loyalty through the ri ng episode. Through the ring, which I assert represents fidelity to the feminized rule, El izabeth/Portia shows the aristocracy/Bassanio and the merchant class/Antonio that she will not stand for usurpation: Bassanio attempts to subvert Portia’s rule by giving away th e ring to honor his friend’s savior, but only the sovereign has the power to bestow such favor s. Comparatively, I suggest that the play attempts to teach early modern audiences what to believe regarding the rule of Elizabeth I and the risks associated with silencing learned women. In addition, I submit that the irony within the play addresses th e irony of the age. Scholars cite the deep-rooted ambivalence that people in the early modern era felt regarding learned women, which in itself is ironic because a highly educated woman


48 ruled England exceedingly well for almost half a century. Therefore, I suggest that the trial scene, in which Portia, the smartest character in the play, must disguise her appearance and dress like a man to help sa ve Antonio and her husband from Shylock’s wrath, spotlights that deep-rooted ambi valence surrounding learned women in the Renaissance. Elizabeth grasped that ambivale nce – and in some cases outright hostility – toward female rulers when she often referred to herself as a man in an attempt to placate masculine fears. I maintain that this tactic demonstrated not only her political savvy but also her understanding of the irony of her rule. Moreover, I contend that the irony surrounding Portia’s quality of mercy speech at the beginning of the trial scene and the f act that she does not show mercy to Shylock interrogates the princely ideal of rule in comparison to the princely obligation to keep lands and subjects safe, and I be lieve that a line in the play supports my assertion. Near the beginning of the trial, Bassanio res ponds to a question from Portia regarding Antonio’s ability to pay the bond, stating th at he can pay the bond “ten times o er” (4.1.209) and that if that amount is not e nough, Shylock must be filled with “malice” (212). He continues: “Wrest once the law to your authority/To do a great right, do a little wrong” (213-214). I suggest th at this line echoes the Mach iavellian advice given to monarchs, and that as a representative of th e aristocracy, Bassanio, through his words, is simply giving advice to his sovereign regardi ng the threat that Shylock presents. Staying true to the letter of the law but skirting its spirit, Po rtia does do a “little” wrong – she severely punishes Shylock – but she does so to protect her subjects, land, and the rule of Venetian law, therefore doing a “great right.” Likewise, Elizabeth may indeed have aspired to the quality of mercy that Portia outlines, but as a monarch, she often had an


49 obligation to be firm, particularly regard ing the Catholic threat. Numerous critics condemn Portia for her sternness in this scene, but I maintain that Portia, as a representative of Elizabeth Tudor, ac ts as a responsible monarch would. Indeed, I contend that those who malign Po rtia for her behavior see her character as either black or white, good or bad, either an “unruly woman” or an obedient daughter. Perhaps critics view Portia dichotomously because throughout the play she appears to serve as a study in contrasts. She stays true to the letter of her dead father’s will but violates the spirit of it; sh e desires “only to stand high” in Bassanio’s account (3.2.155) but dominates him through her actions and words, such as the repetitiv e use of “my” after she marries; and in the trial scene, she speak s eloquently of mercy but brutally punishes Shylock as the Duke, Antonio, and Bassanio look on in awe. However, a close reading of the text using a New Historicist perspective brings Portia’s words and actions into stronger focus and allows us to view her not as a hypocrite but as a pragmatic early modern woman playing the patriarchal system – in effect, giving it lip service while pursuing her own course – and winning. Portia, like Elizabeth, acts in ways that promote her self-interest and the interests of Belmon t/England. I submit that if we peer beyond the surface, beyond where “fancy is bred” and look deeper into Portia’s character, we see a shrewd, highly intelligent woman managing a re pressive system to her own ends and that of her kingdom, much as a modern-day CE O manages the competing demands of the marketplace. Portia, like Elizabeth Tudor, shoul d not be interpreted as black or white, good girl or bad; instead, both are kalei doscopic, multidimensional women who made their own mark in an often severe patriarchal system.


50 Authors do not create within a vacuum. The political, social, and cultural implications of the day swirl amid thei r lines like a mist enveloping the English countryside. When applying a New Historicist reading to Merchant I suggest that there are too many similarities between character an d Queen to ignore. From the descriptions of her hair and eyes to the metaphoric castrat ion of Shylock to the tripartite marriage, Portia is a multilayered charac ter who stands not only for Eliz abeth Tudor but also for all learned Renaissance women who survived and thrived in a misogynistic world. Elizabeth protected her nation by using whatever means n ecessary to keep her shores safe. In 1603, when she died, no enemies battered the walls of EnglandÂ’s castles, and the country was on its way to establishing its empire. Likewise Portia protects the shores of Belmont and Venice from threats, knowing full well that th e ends justify the means when she renders Shylock impotent and restores harmony to her world. When Merchant closes, as when Elizabeth died, Belmont and its inhabitants, like ElizabethÂ’s E ngland, are safe, happy, and prosperous. Both real and fictional ev ents can credit learned women who would not allow their voices to be margin alized or silenced.


51 Works Cited Abate, Corinine. “’Nerissa Teaches Me What to Believe’: Portia’s Wifely Empowerment in The Merchant of Venice .” The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays Eds. John Mahon and Ellen MacLeod Mahon. New York: Routledge (2002): 283 -304. Baker, Elliott. “The Queen’s Hand in The Merchant of Venice .” The Elizabethan Review 3 (1995): 21-31. Bevington, David. Shakespeare’s Comedies New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Cohen, Walter. “ The Merchant of Venice and the Possibilities of Historical Criticism.” ELH 49 (1982): 765-789. ------. Drama of a Nation: Public Thea ter in Renaissance England and Spain Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985. Geary, Keith. “The Nature of Portia ’s Victory: Turning to Men in The Merchant of Venice .” Shakespeare Survey 37 (1984): 55-68 Gibson, Joan. “Educating for Silence: Rena issance Women and the Language Arts.” Hypatia 4 (1989): 9-27. Green, Janet. “Queen Elizabeth I’s La tin Reply to the Polish Ambassador.” Sixteenth Century Journal 31 (2000): 987-1008. Greenblatt, Stephen. Will in the World New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. Hatlen, Burton. “Feudal and Bourgeois Concepts of Value in The Merchant of Venice .” S hakespeare: Contemporary Critical Approaches. Ed. Harry Garvin. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1980. Horwich, Richard. “Riddle and Dilemma in The Merchant of Venice .” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 2 (1977): 191-200. Jardine, Lisa. “Cultural Conf usion and Shakespeare’s Learned Heroines: ‘These are old paradoxes’.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 1-18. Jiji, Vera. “Portia Revisited: The Influence of Unconscious Factors Upon Theme and Characterization in The Merchant of Venice .” Literature and Psychology 26 (1976): 5-15.


52 Kitch, Aaron. “Shylock’s Sacred Nation.” Shakespeare Quarterly 59 (2008): 131-155. Kuhns, Richard and Barbara Tovey. “Portia’s Suitors.” Philosophy and Literature 13 (1989): 325-331. Leventen, Carol. “Patrimony and Patriarchy in The Merchant of Venice .” The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Valerie Wayne. Ithaca: Cornell UP (1991): 59-80. MacCaffery, Wallace. Elizabeth I London: Edward Arnold, 1993. Neale, J.E. Queen Elizabeth I Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1952. Newman, Karen. “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Wo men and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice .” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 19-33. Park, Clara Claiborne. “As We Like It: How a Girl Can Be Smart and Still Popular.” The Woman’s Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare Eds. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz, Gayle Greene, and Carol Thomas Neely. Urbana: University of Illinois Press (1980): 100-116. Prosser, Shannon Leigh. “Queen O’er Myself”: A Study of Portia’s Identity as Elizabeth I Unpublished master’s thesis, University of Texas, 1992. Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning Chicago: Chicago UP, 1981. Ronald, Susan. The Pirate Queen New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Rozmovits, Linda. “New Woman Meets Shak espeare Woman: the struggle over the figure of Portia in England in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.” Women’s History Review 4 (1995): 441-463. Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice In Shakespeare’s Comedies Ed. David Bevington. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. Szatek, Karoline. “ The Merchant of Venice and the Politics of Co mmerce.” The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays Eds. John Mahon and Ellen MacLeod Mahon. New York: Routledge (2002): 325-352. Ungerer, Gustav. “Portia a nd the Prince of Morocco.” Shakespeare Studies 31 (2003): 89-126. Velz, John. “Portia and the Ovid ian Grotesque.” Ibid: 179-186. Warnicke, Retha. Women of the English Re naissance and Reformation Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1983. Weir, Alison. The Life of Elizabeth I New York: Ballantine Books, 1998.


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