I recently read an intriguing work by a favorite author of mine, Joseph Pearce, who writes of the Catholic presence in the major plays by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. I also recently took a Shakespearean course in which we read The Merchant of Venice and when asked to judge which play was my favorite, I picked that one notably because of the moral aspect to the play. However, I was unaware of the depth of the moral aspect until I read Pearce’s book. I will examine my favorite moral element of The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare’s Marian figure.
Her name is Portia, and she mirrors the Ultimate Feminist herself not only in her actions but her value judgments. Additionally, the actions of others within the work indicate her Marian status. What are the actions of the other characters? What are Portia’s value judgments? I will briefly answer both questions now. Bassanio’s actions reflect a reverence towards Portia in that he, according to himself, ought to be on his best behavior around Portia which means, as Pearce puts it, that at the least “modesty is becoming in her presence” (30). Moreover, Jessica emanates these words when she too raises Portia’s virtue to that of heaven’s (3.5). Here Shakespeare reveals Portia as a Marian figure. Even her home means “mountain of Beauty” (32). And too, the play may be vastly misunderstood if not read from her perspective. Portia is the central character in the play.
Portia’s value judgments are fundamental to the work. Those value judgments have consequences and pertain to problems which also have consequences. I won’t go through all the problems nor their consequences but only wish to focus on Portia’s value judgments. She recognizes the value of prudence and temperance in choosing a husband. She judges they are necessary in doing so (1.2). However, though it would seem her father’s test for a husband overrides Portia’s choice in the matter (as many post-modern feminists and others argue), Portia admits how the test prevents her own emotional bias which is like a shadow hovering over her potential prudent and tempered actions. The test is beautifully crafted to objectively choose a good husband for Portia, but Portia must admirably overcome her emotional bias by subjecting herself to the objective test (36-37). This is something most post-modern feminists (and others) find foolish, but which a true feminist (who desires to imitate Mary the Mother of Jesus) finds noble. She prudently trusts in her father’s test and two significant consequences follow.
One consequence is that Portia recognizes Shylock’s flaw in that he deliberately chooses not to give up that which prevents his focus from being oriented towards heaven, his greed of wealth. The second significant consequence is that Portia recognizes Bassanio’s flaw in that he deliberately chooses to give up that which does not necessary prevent his focus from being oriented towards heaven, the marriage ring. You may already notice the heavy emphasis on choice which reminds me of the choice Mary had in subjecting her will to God’s. This is but a small example of the Catholic presence in the major Shakespearean plays and is one of many reasons why I love The Merchant of Venice.
Pearce, Joseph. Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays, Ignatius Press, 2010. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, FOLGER Shakespeare Library, 1993. Print.