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The Merchant of Venice - In Act 3 Sc 2, lines 219-325, how does Shakespeare present the relationship between Portia and Bassanio?

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Introduction

In Act 3 Sc 2, lines 219-325, how does Shakespeare present the relationship between Portia and Bassanio? Prior to this scene Shakespeare had revealed a very different side to the character of Portia. The audience to this point have come to recognize her as a woman filled with spirit and intellect albeit controlled by a man through "the will of her dead father". However in this scene, with the over-run of men in Belmont, a very different personality emerges. Portia appears to dedicate herself to being a dutiful wife, completely submissive to her husband. She flatters Bassanio, and later claims that to be worthy of him she would need to be "a thousand times more fair". She says that she is a "unlessoned school girl", giving a very modest description of herself, as we know her to be very clever. Even though this is her expected role in the 16th century, it seems strange to us today that even her character and intelligence seem to be adjusted for him. In the scene, though Bassanio's successful choice of caskets is inevitable, we are still surprised by his low-key reaction to the winning of Portia. ...read more.

Middle

This again reminds us that Venice and now Belmont are very male dominated societies, and it appears that even Portia accepts this. When she does speak it is only to back up Bassanio or to remind him that "she is half of him" and that he must do anything he can to help Antonio. She doesn't offer an opinion as we expect her do and speaks only to Bassanio, when voicing her sympathies. However in line 298 the audience begins to restore its faith in the female lead as she orders Bassanio to pay Antonio "six thousand ducats" and then to "double it and treble that" until Shylock is satisfied. Portia at this point appears to be re-gaining control and making it known that though a man must as usual control her, she still has priorities. She will not submit completely to all the demands of her role as a dutiful wife. It is clear that though she may have to be controlled by Bassanio, she hasn't completely lost her confidence and character as we thought she had before. ...read more.

Conclusion

In Shakespeare's time it was very difficult for any women of social standing to live independently from men, as women were dependent, as Portia was, first on their fathers and then on their husbands. The law gave women no other option, as they were not allowed to own property or have wealth in their own name. As Portia knows the law, a 16th century audience would have been satisfied with the fact that though she must be a well-trained wife, she has found in Bassanio someone who will not completely abuse her rights. To them Bassanio was probably a perfectly acceptable romantic "lead" even though he moves in a complex not and less then admirable society. In the 21st century we are less as willing to accept this and perhaps wish Portia had more control. We recognize that Bassanio has set out to win Portia purely for financial gain. Though this may have been common in Shakespearean times it appears wrong to us today. In our world Bassanio and Portia probably would not have be compatible. In that sense I felt the relationship between Bassanio and Portia to be slightly disappointing as the supposed romantic "fairy tale" ending doesn't leave us quite satisfied. Katie Taylor 10H 4/28/07 ...read more.

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