Respect for the Dead Who Disregard the Living

While reading I.ii of The Merchant of Venice, I paused to consider the ridiculousness of the nature of Portia’s conflict. While it is her future that is in question, she has no say or participation in the process of finding her future husband. Instead, she feels the need to follow her deceased father’s request for suitors to randomly guess which chest contains Portia’s portrait. The “winner” who randomly guesses correctly is then able to marry Portia. In short, this would mean that Portia’s father rather put his trust in the dumb luck of strange men than the thoughtful consideration of his own daughter. What does this say about Portia’s relationship with her father? She is willing to put her future in the hands of a stranger’s luck in order to please her deceased father when he clearly had no respect for Portia’s personal wishes.

One may argue that while the process of finding a husband for Portia is based on pure luck in guessing, the men who guess have already agreed to never get married in the event of losing. Agreeing to those terms could show dedication and loyalty to Portia, which would be admirable traits in a future husband. Even though Portia has no say in the matter, at least she can have peace of mind in knowing that the men competing for her are willing to sacrifice their own future in order to chance being with her. In this way, the men would share a commonality with Portia: they both sacrifice their futures in order to please another whom they care about.

On the other hand, it is possible that those who agree to never get married in order to compete for Portia are not being honest. It is not said what the consequences are if they disobey this agreement. After all, Portia’s father is dead and would not be able to punish the men personally. Unless there are others knowledgeable of this agreement and feel inclined to bring justice over traitors, there is no reason that the men would not get away with getting married later, anyway. Regardless of these possibilities, all of Portia’s suitors end up leaving anyway, scared of the potential consequence of losing. Perhaps this was Portia’s father’s intentions in the first place. Maybe he figured that no man would want to risk his future in a game to win his daughter, leaving her to be an old maid. For whatever reason, it is possible that Portia’s father wanted her to never be married.

I think it is fairly safe to say that Portia’s father had no problem disregarding his daughter’s feelings and felt too self-important, even after death, to consider Portia’s input. It is tragic that a dead man’s wishes take precedence over a living woman’s wishes, even when the situation should only involve the feelings of the woman and the suitor of her choice. Nerissa asks Portia to reflect on her suitors, as if this reflection could make any difference in the outcome of the competition. Portia is purely an object, a prize, and strangely, this is what her father intended.

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One thought on “Respect for the Dead Who Disregard the Living

  1. Cyrus Mulready

    I really like your focus here, Allison, on the casket plot, and your insightful commentary on what this suggests about Portia and her relationship to her absent father. We may want to discuss this further in class, but I wonder if the "lottery," as it's called, is as random as you suggest…when we come to the moment of choice, we might consider if, in fact, it was rigged in favor of Bassanio!

    Reply

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