Merchant of Venice

Portia’s Trick: Theatrical Farce or Cruel and Calculated? College

It is often observed that William Shakespeare’s comedies feature some uncomfortable scenes that leave audiences unsure as to whether characters are participating in harmless, theatrical farce or a meaner brand of mockery that borders on the cruel. Such scenes involve trickery that seems funny enough on the surface but, upon closer inspection of the jokester’s motives, can slowly replace a reader’s easy grin with a look of bemusement and concern. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the comedy’s leading lady is no stranger to the kind of jokes that seem to take things too far. During the second half of the play, Portia orchestrates a prank in order to best her future husband Bassanio, to the somewhat troubling effect mentioned above. In Portia’s case, however, the trick was executed not with depraved intentions, but with the goal of asserting dominance over her would-be husband. Although Portia seems to love Bassanio, he presents a threat to both her autonomy and her control over her deceased father’s estate and riches. In order to maintain her power, Portia uses her trick with the ring to position herself above Bassanio, belittling him by questioning and attacking his fidelity, sexual dominance, and masculinity before...

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