I recently read Joseph Pearce’s book Through Shakespeare’s Eyes: Seeing the Catholic Presence in the Plays in which he explicates the influence of Catholicism upon the major plays, particularly The Merchant of Venice, which also happens to be my favorite Shakespearean drama. I like it for its moral (and somewhat ethical) dimension, for of all of Shakespeare’s plays none so clearly invites the audience to consider humility par excellence in the context of marriage. How is this invitation so?
Bassanio introduces the fair lady of “wondrous virtues” (1.1.170) whose “name is Portia” (1.1.172). Indeed, because of her virtue”renowned suitors” (1.1.176) from Venice quest for her love upon her nearby home of Belmont. Portia also happens to be searching for a husband, but her heart lies in tension when the will of her dead father invites her to provide a test for the suitors to discover of which of them would be worthy of husbandry, but in the process her freedom of choice diminishes, for the choice would be that of her father’s (1.2). Indeed, Portia states, “I / may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I / dislike” (1.2.22-24), for the power of choosing and refusing a husband would be completely out of her hands. Shakespeare invites the audience to judge whether she ought to provide the test for the suitors or not?
Portia notes that it would be good to follow her father’s instruction, for the “youth” (1.2.20) in their “blood” (1.2.18), that is in their mere emotions, would be ignorant of “good counsel” (1.2.20) due to the fact that mere emotions without reason harbors intemperance and imprudence. Portia recognizes that her emotions cloud her judgement of what is prudent and moderate in choosing a good husband. Would it not be prudent then for some influence outside of herself to guide her to a good husband? If so, what would this guidance look like?
We know from Portia’s maiden Nerissa that Portia’s father was “ever virtuous” (1.2.27) and as such his instruction as it were should not be simply ignored, for Portia desires a virtuous man for a husband, and whose counsel is better than a virtuous man’s himself? Many people might find such a test of virtue impossible or foolish to provide, for who would give up their freedom for a potential spouse? Should not a marriage bring forth such freedom rather than diminish it?
A marriage built on false freedom would cultivate a freedom of pure materialism, whereby the chooser of a spouse has the freedom of choice cultivated by a self-gain attitude (i.e. one’s choices would culminate in the gaining of something rather than the giving of something). A marriage built on true freedom would cultivate love, which is the gift of self for the sake of another. Is not this gift of self a humble act? That is to ask, if Portia were to provide her father’s test of virtue to her suitors, would she not be humbling herself by subjecting herself to an objective test of virtue? The test would have to be truly objective I suppose, and in that case, a look at its objectivity is in order.
The test is indeed objective because in order to pass it one would have to “give and hazard all he hath” (2.7.21-22) for their lover. In other words, the one who Portia should “rightly love” (1.2.32) would be the man who gives of himself fully and completely for her in marriage. The test is objective, for all men are invited to take it. Indeed, Portia freely chooses to subject herself to her father’s objective test (Pearce 37). Reminiscing Pearce’s words here, she humbly limits her freedom in order to conform to practical reason, which allows her to be free of the issue of imprudence and intemperance due to her clouded judgement (Pearce 37). Here lies a radical didactic framework for all those in Portia’s place, for how many would find conformity to the will of another foolish in a culture that celebrates false freedom?
This blog is part 1 of my interest in the virtue of humility in The Merchant of Venice. I appreciate the invitation to observe humility par excellence in the context of marriage. In my next part I will be analyzing Portia’s perspective of others due to her humility.
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.