Although feminine in every sense of the word, Portia from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is also completely at home in a man’s world. A wonderfully balanced mix of virtue, honour, and respect for justice, she is one of Shakespeare’s most intelligent female characters. Little surprise then, when Antonio cannot repay the loan to Shylock and is called upon to forfeit a pound of flesh as agreed, Portia comes to his defence disguised as a lawyer.
Although she urges the moneylender for mercy, he insists on enforcing his original bargain. In that case, Portia argues, Shylock must stick to the strictest interpretation of the law. Convinced he has won the day, Shylock proceeds to enforce his contract but just as Antonio prepares to die, Portia plays her trump card:
Take thou thy pound of flesh, but in cutting it, if thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy land and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate.(4.I.308)
With this, friends and lovers reconcile and forgiveness triumphs over greed.
Also with this, Shakespeare reminds us that is not fate, but we ourselves, who create both our troubles and our happiness. In this respect, whatever results from our decisions and actions, we have only ourselves to hold accountable. Likewise, Shakespeare reminds us that when we act with integrity by considering the impact of those decisions and actions on others, we do ourselves proud. The world may not be fair but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be.
The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as a gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath; it is twice blessed; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:(4.I.183-97)