Written for Shakespeare's Plays, Summer 2004


Flawed Heroes and Complex Villains:

Tracing the Motivations of Portia and Shylock

“Yes, it's terribly simple. The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” - Giles (Whedon).

The fictitious Rupert Giles is not the first Englishman to know that good and evil are never simplistic. William Shakespeare presented such ambiguities in many of his works, presenting to audiences characters that were rarely if ever all good or all bad, characters that cause readers to pity them, laugh at them, feel rage toward them, and adore them all in the confines of one story. The Merchant of Venice is a play filled with this paradox; as modern readers, we are left unsure as to with whom we should have sided.

At one glance, Portia is the epitome of strong and sly, a woman well ahead of her Elizabethan time, to be admired for her determination to at once obey and sidestep her deceased father’s wishes for her future. On the other hand, she is merciless and cunning, willing to take from others in order to gain her own desires.

Her nemesis, Shylock, is the stereotypical Jew; though Shakespeare wrote him with more depth and humanity than that with which most Jews were portrayed at the time, he still remained shrewd and greedy in business, and stubbornly bitter in all (Rogers 13). He was a victim of cruelty and mockery from other characters, yet in the end, he did not show the same kindness that he so badly wanted others to show him.

By tracing the steps each character takes to ensure his or her desired outcome, it can be surmised that while their actions differ, their motivations are virtually the same, making them both a hero and villain at once.

Portrait of Portia

Popular opinion might tend to disagree with any negative light shed on Portia. Kenneth Myrick maintains that the play is Shakespeare “set[ting] a generous and clear-sighted woman in sharp contrast to a no less unusual, but markedly unsocial man” (xxi).

Julie Hankey recounts an essay written by Anna Jameson and the lofty position she gives to Portia, describing her as “all the noblest and most lovable qualities that ever met together in woman” (430).  Hankey however, also notes that this reading of Portia does not stand the test of time: modern readers will see her as a victim rather than one sharing “feminine wit” (431).

Clearly, Jameson worships at the altar of Portia, blaming the “male critical establishment” for turning Portia’s “heavenly compound of talent, feeling, wisdom, beauty, gentleness” into something resembling shallow cleverness and cuteness (qtd. in Hankey, 432). Hankey traces stage histories of Portia being portrayed as masculine and plain in order to demonstrate that the qualities she possesses in the play are in fact, also masculine. Citing this is a common interpretation, Hankey insists that Portia is both “womanly and unwomanly,” not fitting into romantic ideologies of a heroine, but also not able to be pigeonholed as a shrew or a rogue either (433).

Indeed, when compared to Shakespeare’s infamous Iago or Claudius, Portia hardly rates as brute force. However, taking her actions and motivations into account casts her in a less than generous fashion.

This heroine is perhaps best known for her speech regarding mercy. In some of the most beautifully concise lines constructed by Shakespeare, she tells us that mercy “…is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (4.1.192-193). Even so, once she skillfully wins mercy for Antonia, Portia refuses that same mercy to Shylock. It is not satisfying enough for her that Shylock would not receive the earning he thought himself entitled by his contract with Antonio; she would also see him stripped of his fortune, his work, and his religion over a bet to which Antonio agreed. Did Portia really believe in the quality of mercy, or was she simply using wit and language to manipulate events in the courtroom to her benefit? If the latter is true, as the text indicates, it suggests that she is as conniving and selfish as Shylock is accused of being.

Ace. G. Pilkington concedes that in her guise of Balthazar, Portia is an equal outsider to Shylock (2). Textual evidence shows Portia his equal even sans her mask. Though she accuses Shylock of taking advantage of Antonio’s situation for his personal gain (and in fact, of doing this to all the clients he serves through usury), she is not above taking advantage of situations as they present themselves to her. Case in point is when Portia tricks her new and laboriously won new husband Bassanio into breaking an important oath when, as Balthazar, she demands he give her as payment the ring his wife gifted to him. Portia stands to gain nothing from this gesture except for her own folly (proving that her own husband will break an oath to her), and her supposedly beloved husband’s dismay.

While modern or feminist readings of the play may call Portia a victim of her patriarchal and sexist society – in having to obey her father’s seemingly random system for gaining a husband – her trickery against Bassanio shows that she is equally capable of using her own gender role to manipulate a member of the opposite sex, which is, in turn, also sexism. This is not to argue the fact that Portia as a heroine is intelligent and cunning, but to say, she is no purer or kindhearted than the supposed nemesis Shylock. Like Shylock, she is willing to do whatever it takes to secure an ending that is desirable to her whims and wishes.

This is evident when Portia entertains the suitors who come to choose a caske. Portia is unfeeling and cold to the Prince of Morocco and Arragon, even though their choices doom them to a celibate life. Meanwhile, she seems to try her best to come to Bassanio’s aid when it is his time to make a choice; he is, after all, the one she wants. This observation isn’t made to blame Portia for her actions, as reasonable critics would not wish her a marriage with someone she doesn’t like, it simply demonstrates that Portia was looking out for Portia – she was not a selfless saint as some critics have labeled her. Portia, in affect, was a woman bound by rules she had no say in making, and determined to make the best of her life even so.

The Many Layers of Shylock

In the same fashion, Shylock was a man painted into corner, dealing with the restrictions of his place in society – which was determined by genetic factors much as Portia’s was – and doing his best to success and avenge in spite of them. While Portia was attempting to  “rescue her dear bought husband's dearest friend,” Shylock was reeling from the betrayal of his daughter Jessica, and perhaps attempting to gain back some dignity by claiming defeat over an enemy (Pilkington, 2).

Shylock had dealt with Antonio in the past and knew him to be an anti-Semite, one who was determined to destroy Shylock’s reputation as well as his business. Antonio himself is such a bland character in the textual confines of the play, it’s easy for us to side with Portia’s defense; Antonio, is, in this light, a helpless victim of Shylock’s bloodthirsty single-minded plot. We might easily forget that this same Antonio condemns Shylock publicly over his charging interest simply because Antonio disagreed with the practice. This helpless victim also spits on Shylock, calls him a dog, and displays general contempt toward Jews. One would hope modern readers who see Portia as a victim of sexism might easily make the correlation to see Shylock as the victim of racism, and to note that neither form of prejudice was an outrage during the period in which the play was written.

It is possible Antonio might have felt it his Christian duty to denounce Shylock over his lending practices. Historically, usury was a divisive issue between Christians and Jews, as each religion based their views on different Old Testament scriptures (Kish-Goodling, 331). What is perplexing and unsympathetic in Antonio’s character is that he agrees to borrow money with interest from Shylock, even though he disagrees so vehemently with the use of interest. Shylock is clearly outraged by this hypocrisy and points it out to Antonio, who simply states that they are enemies and should act in accordance. Shylock’s response is quite telling in this instance:

 “I would be friends with you and have your love,
Forget the shames that you have stained me with,

Supply your present wants, and take no doit

Of usance for my moneys, and you’ll not hear me!

This is kind I offer!” (1.3.149-53).

In a show of vulnerable humanity, Shylock attempts to reach out to someone who is his obvious and sworn enemy, and his kindness is rejected. In fact, both Bassanio and Antonio have no difficulty in first insulting and humiliating him, then accepting his loan.

The complexity of Shylock, of course, is that it is hard to be sympathetic for a man who demands a pound of flesh – or more plainly stated, certain death – as the interest on a loan, even from his enemy. As with Portia, all of his actions cannot be defended by his motivating thoughts and feelings, they can simply be explained.

Along with being an ostracized Jewish moneylender, Shylock is also a disgruntled father. Jessica has further humiliated him by sneaking off to marry a Christian and stealing from Shylock in order to do so. Insult to injury is that Shylock’s servant Lancelet has aided in the operation and abandoned Shylock to work for Bassanio.

Again, we can trace these actions back to motivations. Both Jessica and Lancelet were oppressed under Shylock’s household. They were subject to the manifestations of his bitterness and greed. Jessica saw the persecution her father suffered as a Jew and wanted to be free from that cultural identity. Lancelet, on the other hand, seems to have no specific complaints against Shylock, only misgivings about working for a Jew. In both cases, the motivations at work seem rather self-centered, and they help to shed light on Shylock’s response.

The news that Jessica has taken some of his fortune and fled to marry a Christian shakes Shylock visibly. It is obvious from his previous instructions to Jessica to guard his house that Shylock greatly trusts his only child (2.5.30). We learn indirectly how Shylock has reacted to the news of Jessica’s betrayal through the musings of Solanio and Salarino. In outrage, Shylock wanders the streets mourning the twin losses of his money and his daughter.

This scene, 2.8, serves to further illustrate Shylock’s mindset and the actions that follow. Solanio and Salarino exchange their information somewhat gleefully, finding both humor and satisfaction as they recount Shylock’s grief. It’s obvious through this exchange that the characters outside of Shylock’s world do not understand him, calling his reaction “so confused/so strange, outrageous, and so variable…” (2.8.12-13).  Solanio, Salarino, and their friends have no insight at all into Shylock’s life, much less any respect for the losses he is suffering.

Yes, the summation could be made here that Shylock is mourning the loss of his money as much or even more than the loss of his daughter. However, what should not be missed is that it is a Christian man for whom his daughter left him, a Christian man who will be using his money, a Christian man who has humiliated him once again. Shylock doesn’t just see the present when he considers the happenings in his life – he feels years of racism, prejudice, oppression, because of Jewish heritage. To have his only daughter secretly, and probably even spitefully, marry one of those who share the attitude of hatred against his people is obviously a blow to his ego, his psyche, his identity, and his self-esteem. Shylock most likely feels as if his entire life’s work has meant nothing, for he is left without a legacy. Even in this state, he is afforded no sense of basic human regard from those who consider themselves his enemy.

Critics have long debated whether Shakespeare meant Shylock to be a villain or a victim. Some suggest Shylock was intended to be a “comic villain,” as this role would have befitted Elizabethan attitudes in the time period (Cooper 117). John Cooper, however, sees Shylock’s famous speech, and the prominence of its place within the play, as a key insinuation of Shakespeare’s purpose. While the suggestion of a comic Shylock is alluded to in passages uttered by Lancelet, Solanio, and Salarino, this iteration of the character is never seen on stage (Cooper 119). Audiences instead see Shylock as a shrewd businessman, a cunning avenger, and a broken father. Some of the most memorable lines from the play come from his monologue regarding the treatment of Jews. After Solanio and Salarino have further antagonized Shylock over Jessica’s behavior, called him a devil, and admonished him for his intent to collect his promised interest from Antonio (3.1.20, 26-51), his response includes this explanation:

                            “ If you wrong us, shall
we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will

resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,

what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong

a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian

example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me I

will execute…” (3.1.65-71).

Shylock doesn’t care as much about Antonio’s death as he does about giving a Christian – any Christian who has acted out in persecution – a taste of revenge. He wants to live by the same standards that Christians do. His way of carrying out these wishes is certainly over the top and vicious, but also, explainable.

The Quality of Mercy… and Justice… and Portia

So what, besides the obvious race and gender differences, separates Portia and Shylock? Primarily, it is that one is the victor, and one the loser. One wins mercy, while the other wins justice. When their motivations are considered, they are much more alike than their different outcomes would lead us to believe, and the issue of mercy as opposed to justice displays the clearest example.

In the courtroom, it is not justice that Portia seeks for Antonio. Justice in the literal sense would mean that Antonio would be forced to pay a debt to which he agreed. Justice in the poetic sense would mean Antonio would suffer pain and humiliation in a similar vein of that which he caused Shylock. Justice is what Shylock demands in the courtroom, and justice is what Portia cleverly wins… though not in the way Shylock wanted it.

It is Antonio who receives mercy, also because Portia gains it. Portia’s famous and impassioned plea to the judge is a cry for mercy specifically for Antonio, and readers would be wise not to forget this. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” indeed, unless in the case of its availability to a Jew, or perhaps anyone whom Portia does not hold dear (4.1.190). Portia plays the terms of mercy and justice for gains she finds desirable, not to gain blessings, be kindred with the “hearts of Kings,” or share in Godly attributes (4.1.192,200-1). Portia displays the shrewdness of a Jewish moneylender and the hypocrisy of any racist in her defense of Antonio, and in the justice she seeks for Shylock.

The outcomes in the courtroom clearly display the dichotomy between justice and mercy, not only through Portia’s explanation, but also through her behavior, and that of Shylock. Justice is governed by law – it is a must if rulers are going to uphold the legal guidelines they put in place. Mercy, however, is governed by character. It is optional, and given from intent to do good and be kind.

Similarly, a villain is someone who acts out of a motivation to do harm to another, while a hero acts out of the opposite motivation. Portia intends to do something good for Antonio, because she loves Bassanio, and Bassanio loves him. Portia also intends to do harm to Shylock because he threatens someone who is indirectly important to her. For these reasons, we cannot call Portia a villain, but we also cannot call her a hero. Shylock is so closely parallel to Portia in his motivations that we can say the same of him. He lends the money to Antonio seemingly out of generosity, but makes a demand equal to his life as penalty.

In essence, two of Shakespeare’s famous characters  - one known for being a witty and courageous woman, the other for having more depth than a stereotypical Jew, are also two incredibly ambiguous characters. What a feat to use that ambiguity to elicit passionate response and debate from audiences through the ages.

Guiding Student Interpretation

That The Merchant of Venice is so inspiringly misleading makes it an optimum choice for classroom study. The title of the play is as ambiguous as its characters, leading readers to believe that the story is about Antonio, when in fact, his role is quite idle.

The characters of Portia and Shylock afford the chance for students to look beyond stereotypes, both in society and in literature. In a shallow reading, Portia could be easily pinpointed as the typical Shakespeare heroine – victimized but strong, oppressed but brilliant. Closer analysis allows students to ponder Portia’s motivations, both the noble and the selfish, and come to their own conclusions about what kind of person she is, and her place in the overall story. Likewise, Shylock presents a limitless debate, not only in whether he is a stereotypical Jew, but also in whether Shakespeare meant for him to be portrayed as such. It is also debatable, as explored here, whether Shylock himself is representative of humanity, whether he is to be taken seriously, whether he can retain any dignity, and whether he is worthy of our contempt or our sympathy.

Staging is one way in which students can explore these themes for themselves, and whether they agree with the thesis of Portia and Shylock’s shared motivations is essentially irrelevant. The importance is that they look beyond the superficial interpretation to decide who and what these characters represent. Educators can choose to show filmed adaptations of the play that present different theatrical adaptations of the characters, or ideally, can act out different scenes in the classroom using the same differing interpretations.

Means and Ends

Whether motivations justify behaviors is a philosophical question not resolved in The Merchant of Venice or indeed, within the confines of any one story. However, this particular story does demonstrate that the nature of people can be more deeply read in studying what causes them to do the things they do. When we read or watch The Merchant of Venice with this idea in mind, it’s easy to see that the gap between Portia and Shylock is not nearly as wide as we might initially perceive.


Works Cited

Cooper, John R. “Shylock’s Humanity.” Shakespeare Quarterly 21 (1970): 117-24.

Hankey, Julie. “Victorian Portias: Shakespeare’s Borderline Heroine.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 426-48.

Kish-Goodling, Donna M. “Using The Merchant of Venice in Teaching Monetary Economics.” Journal of Economic Education 29, (1998): 330-9.

Myrick, Kenneth. “Introduction to The Merchant of Venice.”  New York: New American Library, 1965. i-xxiii.

Pilkington, Ace G. “Portia and Shylock: The Outsiders of Venice.” 1997. Dixie State College of Utah. 2 August 2004. <http://dsc.dixie.edu/shakespeare/portiaess.htm>.

Rogers, Jami. “Shylock and History.” Masterpiece Theatre: The Merchant of Venice. 2 August 2004. < http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/merchant/ei_shylock.html>.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Wernstine. New York: Washington Square, 1992.

Whedon, Joss. Lie to Me. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Warner Brothers. WGN. 3 Nov. 1997. Transcript.