The Portia’s Controversy
Perhaps one of William Shakespeare’s most famous comedies, The Merchant of Venice presents the game of three caskets with the high stakes of marriage to the wealthy and beautiful Portia if you choose correctly, or a life of solitude should you fail. The character Bassanio takes on the precarious challenge and after choosing correctly, makes one of the most popular speeches of the play. The speech is widely analyzed for its peculiar language that lends speculation into what Bassanio actually thinks of Portia and of winning the game. After a close reading of the speech, Bassanio’s dialogue can be interpreted to express his fear of Portia’s overwhelming beauty and being married to such an independent, wealthy woman.
Inside the winning lead casket lies a picture of Portia, which Bassanio picks up before beginning his speech. Bassanio announces, “The painter plays the spider, and hath woven / A golden mesh t’untrap the hearts of men / Faster than gnats in cobwebs” (III.ii.121-123). Initially this statement reads as a compliment to Portia’s great beauty, claiming her hair is so alluring it traps the hearts of all men. But trapping the hearts of men has a sinister undertone to it, potentially suggesting Bassanio believes Portia is luring men in with her good looks and dooming them to a life alone when they inevitably fail. This creates a characterization of Portia similar to Medusa as she uses her beauty to ensure these men will never be able to commit themselves to another woman in the future.
As the speech continues, Bassanio remains staring at Portia’s portrait, whether in admiration or in apprehension it is not entirely clear. Bassanio states, “But her eyes— / How could he see to do them? Having made one, / Methinks it should have power to steal both his / And leave itself unfurnished” (III.ii.123-126). Bassanio expects the power of Portia’s eyes to stop the painter from ever being able to finish the portrait, which again prompts the audience to wonder if this statement is intended to be a compliment or an admission of fear. The way Bassanio describes her eyes as having the power to permanently steal the gaze of a man reaffirms the Medusa characterization of Portia. Upon locking eyes with Medusa, any man would be instantly turned to stone and kept from ever returning home. Bassanio presumes Portia’s eyes would have a similar power and expects the painter, upon looking into Portia’s eyes, to never be able to break his stare and finish the portrait. Though it can be argued that the intent of Bassanio’s statement is to compliment the beauty of Portia’s eyes, the tale of Medusa has served to warn against the power that comes with such profound beauty. When Bassanio finally breaks his fixation on the portrait, he begins to compare the real life Portia to the portrait of Portia in the casket. Bassanio pronounces, “Yet look how far / The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow / In underprizing it, so far this shadow / Doth limp behind the substance” (III.ii.126-129). Bassanio announces to Portia that both her portrait and his praises about her beauty do not do justice to the true beauty of the actual Portia. If Bassanio’s previous remarks are actually intended to characterize Portia as Medusa, his statement takes on a very negative meaning. As the picture is only an imitation of Portia, the actual Portia would be all the more frightening to Bassanio. If the portrait has the power to entrap the hearts of men and capture the attention of any man who meets its gaze, what powers do the real Portia have? If her mere image could cause so much fear, Portia in real life would be able to do so much more to any man who crossed her path. After placing the picture of Portia back in the casket, Bassanio finds a note from Portia’s father detailing the nature of his prize. When he finishes reading the declaration of his winnings, Bassanio says, “Like one of two contending in a prize, / That thinks he hath done well in people’s eyes, / Hearing applause and universal shout, / Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt / Whether those peals of praise be his or no” (III.ii.141-145). In this statement, the intent behind Bassanio’s speech seems to be solidified. Bassanio has won the casket game and describes feeling like a contestant on a game show wondering whether the applause he hears is for himself or not. This clearly shows that Bassanio’s uncertainty about his fate and the true nature of his prize. Is this prize he has won really a prize? Being married to a woman that can trap the hearts of men with the beauty of her hair and trap a man with the power of her eyes hardly seems like a prize. It is more likely that the applause would be for Portia for trapping another man over applause for Bassanio’s good fortune. At the conclusion of his speech, Bassanio seems to become acutely aware of the destiny he has chosen for himself by participating in the casket game.
Throughout the remainder of The Merchant of Venice, Portia uses her beauty and power to flaunt her intelligence and show her superiority over her new husband. Bassanio’s speech gives the audience a first glimpse into just how powerful Portia truly is and leads them to ponder Bassanio and Portia’s true intentions. Hundreds of years later, critics and readers alike can still only guess at Bassanio’s actual feelings for Portia and the purpose for which Portia disguises herself as a doctor and convinces Bassanio to give up his ring. Regardless of the purpose behind these actions, Bassanio’s speech presents a definite shift in the audience’s perceptions of the characters and the question of why Bassanio reacts so questionably to winning the much sought after prize of the infamous casket game.
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