In “The Merchant of Venice” by WilliamShakespeare, readers generally associate Shylock, or more often Antonio, as themerchant of the play’s title.
Through a close reading of the play however, itis clear that the mercantile language surrounds Portia. Though several criticssuch as Keith Geary and Karoline Szatek refers to Portia as “the most adeptbusinessman of them all” (p 68) and a “vigorous tradeswoman” respectively, noneof them went as far as to declare Portia as “the” merchant of the play’s title.Ultimately, a close reading of the mercantile language and Portia’s accomplishmentscould perhaps answer the ironic question that Portia posits, “Which is themerchant here?” (p 153) In theplay, the language of commerce continuously surrounds Portia. In her engagementfor example, Bassanio utilised commercial metaphors, telling Portia that he couldnot believe that he had won her if not “confirmed, signed and ratified by you”(p 111). In reply, Portia also used metaphors such as “account”, “to term ingross” and “sum” (p 113). Later when Bassanio learns that Antonio’s life is atrisk, Portia opened her purse strings and offered six-thousand ducats, whichshe later doubles and triples for her “dear bought” Bassanio (p 121-123). Themercantile language resumes in the end of the play when she issued an “oath tocredit” (p 199) on Bassanio’s ring and assigning Antonio as Bassanio’s “surety”(p 199). It is true that characters such as the Duke and Gratiano refer toAntonio as a merchant.
However, the mercantile language does not define Antonioand he does not utilise it to define himself. Similarly, though Shylock oftenspeaks of his ducats, he rarely refers to the trading of goods and services, butonly about collecting and hoarding. Portia, on the other hand, stood out as shefloats around the play making impressive deals. It isundeniable that Portia is a representative of Queen Elizabeth Tudor. In JohnNeale’s biography of Elizabeth, he wrote “some thought her very handsome,others rather comely than handsome…her hairs were golden, but more red thanyellow; her skin very fine…” (p 28). Portia is similarly of many suitors, and oneof her failed suitors, Morocco, briefly addresses the lady of Belmont as “fairPortia” (p 77).
When describing Portia to Antonio, Bassanio said she has “sunnylocks” that “hangs on her temples like Golden Fleece” (p 19). Other than herphysical similarities, Portia’s mercantile behaviour very much resemblesElizabeth. Elizabeth’s distinction, Neale wrote, was her parsimony andfinancial sense. Like Portia, she controls the purse strings and those who arein charge of the money of her marriage and the monarch. Other thanthe mercantile language that she and others employ to describe her, Portia’sactions prove to be an even more concrete evidence that she is “the” merchantof the play.
In a nutshell, she intervenes in trial to preserve her marriage,punishes Shylock and restores Antonio’s ships. Portia was the ultimatenegotiator and master trader of the play as she grants a tripartite marriage inher household, spoils Bassanio, and become an expert in law for her husband’s bestfriend, Antonio—in exchange for companionship, stability and commodities thatshe values. Though Antonio and Shylock is most often referred to “the” merchantof the play, they demonstrate very little entrepreneurial ability. Antonioloses his ships and nearly his life and Shylock his daughter, ducats, ring andreligion. Portia, on the other hand, demonstrates her credibility as a merchantas she loses nothing and gains everything at the end of the play. Criticswrote that Shakespeare carefully crafts his titles, and I personally think thatthe “merchant” of the title is deliberately open for the readers’interpretation. Though it is generally associated with Antonio and Shylock, themercantile language that surrounds Portia as well as her accomplishments makeit difficult for readers to neglect the possibility that Portia is “the”merchant of the play.