Merchant of Venice Queen Elizabeth vs Portia

Merchant of Venice: Queen Elizabeth vs. Portia

There are a number of similarities that exist between Queen Elizabeth of England and William Shakespeare’s character Portia in his play The Merchant of Venice. Both women had a good amount of money and power; although Portia was not royalty, she was still a wealthy heiress in the city of Belmont. Because of the money and power associated with these women, they each had numerous suitors and some noteworthy encounters with suitors during their lives. Also, they each involved themselves with the law and helped to decide issues of governance — the Queen did so from a national perspective while Portia did so from a more modest, civil perspective. These parts of their character and more have helped to make them somewhat ambiguous. There are some scholars who regard them as good people, and others who believe that they did more good than bad. A critical examination of their lives and the parallels between them, however, reveals that although there are some actions that they did that are not desirable, they still are basically good people who are deserving of their reputations as making positive contributions to their respective societies. Examples pertaining to their experience with suitors, their issues with marriage, their use of rhetoric and their forming of alliances among different classes of people demonstrate this thesis very well.

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Both Queen Elizabeth and Portia had similar experiences with suitors who were attempting to win their hands in marriage. Partly due to the money and the power that hey had, their experiences with men who wanted to marry them was unusual, especially when compared to the experience of the average woman. As the Queen of England, Elizabeth attracted men from all over — both within her native England and outside of it. Portia had an unusual situation with suitors because, as dictated in her father’s will, she could only marry the man who correctly selects one of three caskets. Portia also had numerous foreign suitors, as did Queen Elizabeth. In part, the large number of suitors that each woman had is indicative of a pickiness on their part that is partly attributed to their wealth and social standing. In this respect, these women received some of the best suitors to win their hands in marriage. The many foreign suitors that Elizabeth received included King Eric XIV of Sweden, Archduke Charles of Austria, Henry, Duke of Anjou, and Francis, Duke of Anjou, although in time she would come to regard her citizens as “all my husbands, my good people” (Haigh 24). Before finally deciding to marry Bassanio, Portia entertained suitors such as the Prince of Morocco, the Prince of Aragon, and “The County Palatine” (Shakespeare Act I Scene II). The titles of all of these foreign suitors are tributes to the beauty, wealth, and desirability of both Elizabeth and Portia, and suggest that they were women who were extremely sought after. Their desirability and the virtue that contributed to them, such as their intelligence, good looks, and religious conviction help to support the viewpoint that they were actually good people.

Both Portia and Queen Elizabeth endured many different issues relating to marriage that also contributed to a solidification of their character as good despite the opinions of those who may have thought otherwise. Portia’s situation was unique in that immediately following her marriage, she traveled to Venice with her female helper “accoutred like young men” (Shakespeare, Act III, Scene IV) and helped to decide the outcome of the main dispute of the play — Antonio’s life after it appears his ships were lost at sea and he is unable to pay his debt to Shylock. In this respect, Portia is forced to decide legal matters and to uphold them in a situation that indirectly involves her husband since Antonio borrowed money from Shylock in order to give it to Bassanio to provide a dowry for his wedding to Portia. Although Portia had a vested interest in the matter, she still strictly follows the law in this matter and is able to issue a judgment where not only is Antonio able to live, but Shylock is also required to give some of his fortune to Portia’s husband, Bassanio. Queen Elizabeth’s marriage issues were definitely different and largely revolved around the fact that as Queen of England, she never married, named an heir, nor a successor to her throne. She attracted a considerable amount of disfavor among several political groups in England because of this fact (which partly explains some of the ambiguity regarding her historical image), who believed that by not marrying she was setting the stage for turmoil in England after her demise. In actuality, Elizabeth was able to utilize her status as an available bachelorette as the basis for relationships with several of the countries represented by her noble suitors, and refrained from naming a successor (“I will never break the word of a prince spoken in a public place”) (Doran 87) after she did not marry in order to reduce the possibility of an attack on her life to hurriedly give the throne to her successor. Both Elizabeth and Portia went through different marriage issues, yet each utilized those issues as a means of demonstrating her shrewdness which helps to support the fact that they were actually positive people.

There are some striking similarities in both Queen Elizabeth and Portia’s use of rhetoric, especially as applied to matters of the state and of legality. Both women seemed to have a somewhat passionate belief in God (and in Christianity in particular) that helped to guide their actions when they were dealing with issues that pertained to the public. Portia’s religious conviction became readily apparent when she was presiding over the legal matter of Shylock and Antonio and holding the former to the letter of the law in regards to his ability to collect on the pound of flesh that Antonio owed him for not being able to repay the amount of money that was borrowed. Before she actually decided this legal matter, Portia asked Shylock to reconsider his desire to kill Antonio to resolve the matter, in doing so she used wonderful religious references and imagery a sa persuasive means of rhetoric. She specifically told him:

The quality of mercy is not strained.

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;

It is an attribute to God himself,

And earthly power doth then show likest God’s

When mercy seasons justice (Shakespeare IV.i.1 179-186).

This sort of religious rhetoric was not unfamiliar to Queen Elizabeth, who is widely known for her work with the church in Engalnd. In fact, she indirectly helped to spawn the Church of England when, shotly after she became queen, she established the first nationwide Protestant church in the country and illustrated her dedication to this house of religion by becoming its supreme leader. Her tendency to utilize her faith in Christianity as part of her secular efforts in England is perhaps best demonstrated by a speech she gave shortly after becoming Queen in which she stated:

the burden that is fallen upon me makes me amazed, and yet; I am God’s creature, ordained to obey His appointment, I will thereto yield, desiring from the bottom of my heart that I may have assistance of His grace to be the minister of His heavenly will in this office now committed to me. (Loades 36-37).

When taking over as queen of England, Elizabeth utilized rhetoric that invoked Christianity and God as a means of demonstrating her personal belief in the job and its importance to her, which certainly alludes to her attempts to be a positive ruler. When deciding the issue of the debt between Shylock and Antonio, Portia also utilizes rhetoric that directly references God as a means of attempting to get Shylock to demonstrate mercy, which implies that she was attempting to do positive things with her position as well.

Another very important similarity between Queen Elizabeth and Portia in The Merchant of Venice is the way that they were able to reconcile the interests of the merchant class with those of the nobility; due to the fact that Elizabeth was a real person and Portia was a fictional character, Elizabeth was able to actually make such an agreement happen whereas Portia was able to do so symbolically. In Shakespeare’s work Bassanio is representative of the aristocracy (despite the fact that he does not have any particular title or is of noble lineage) simply because he married into wealth and power via his union with Portia. It is extremely significant, then, that his very means of marrying Portia is provided by Antonio who is a business merchant and is able to secure the loan that Bassanio uses as a dowry for his wedding. Although Portia has technically married Bassanio, there is a noticeable union between the pair and Antonio (who represents the merchant class) — especially at the end of the play when Portia has worked diligently in creating a legal outcome in which Antonio is able to continue living and, as it turns out, is able to do so with his fleet of merchant ships intact. The tight union between these three characters and the interest they represent (Portia represents the state, Antonio represents the aristocracy, and Bassanio represents the merchant class) is suggested in the following quote which beings with Bassanio addressing Portia:

I thank you, madam. Give welcome to my friend

This is the man, this is Antonio,

To whom I am infinitely bound.


You should in all sense be much bound to him.

For, as I hear, he was much bound to you. (Shakespeare Act V scene I).

The synthesis between the interests of the state, the aristocracy and the merchant class that is symbolized by Portia, Bassanio and Antonio was actually unified for England under the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth, of course, represented the interests of the state itself, and although she was not married, her work with the Protestant church of England helped to bring about a sense of unity with her aristocracy and most of the rest of England as well. Elizabeth and the aristocracy greatly supported the merchant class and even offshoots of the merchant class, such as the exploratory and pirate efforts of Sir Francis Drake, which the country was able to exploit by earning gains in terms of its economy, military, and overall overseas presence. This sort of accord was alluded to in her speech after being made queen in which she desired of her country that, “I with my ruling and you with your service may make a good account to Almighty God” (Loades 37). These gains for the country were a direct result of the unity between the state, the aristocracy and the merchant class, which was effectively symbolized in The Merchant of Venice and is indicative of the sort of usefulness that both Elizabeth and Portia were able to create with their wealth and lofty social/political/legal stature.

After analyzing some of the most relevant points of similarity and dissimilarity between Queen Elizabeth and Shakespeare’s female protagonist Portia in The Merchant of Venice, it becomes readily apparent that despite the tendencies for some scholars to view them with ambiguity, these women were definitely positive and accomplished a number of beneficial objectives. This fact is greatly supported by the sort of issues with male suitors that each of these women experienced, which was tempered by their wealth and social status and indicated that they were virtuous women who were highly selective about the sort of man that they were willing to marry. It is also readily supported the issues of marriage that each woman dealt with; Portia’s issues pertained to saving the life of an innocent man and helping to symbolically align the interests of the political state, its aristocracy and working class while Queen Elizabeth’s issues revolved about establishing political connections with potential marriages with foreign nobility and preserving the solidarity of England by not naming a successor after she had decided not to marry. Both women were also able to use a particularly persuasive form of rhetoric that indicated their belief in God, Christianity, and the virtues of this religion that helped Elizabeth to rule England with a sense of justice and fairness that Portia demonstrated when she was presiding over the fate of Antonio’s life with the not-so tender mercies of Shylock. Finally, it is perhaps true that the ultimate triumph tat each of these women achieved was in unifying the interests of the state, nobility and the merchant class, a fact which was represented in Shakespeare’s play by the good fortune and close ties between Portia, Bassanio and Antonio and which Queen Elizabeth was able to achieve in real life. As such, it is clear that the good these women were able to produce far outweighed any sort of negative influence that they may have had. As such, it is far more suitable to remember them for their positive deeds and the gains that they made for society than virtually anything else that critics may cite in an attempt to tarnish their reputations.

Works Cited

Doran, Susan. Queen Elizabeth I. London: British Library. 2003. Print.

Haigh, Christopher. Elizabeth I. Harlow: Longman Pearson. 2000. Print.

Loades, David. Elizabeth I: The Golden Reign of Gloriana. London: The National Archives. 2003. Print.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. 1596. Web.

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