The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays and Portia, certainly one of his most famous heroines. The play is set in Venice; where all the men, business and danger takes place and Belmont; beautiful, peaceful and home to Portia. Portia is an intelligent, wealthy young woman whose father has recently died. Before his passing he set up a test by which men could compete to win Portia’s hand in marriage. The test is this; there are three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead. Inside one of the caskets is a picture of Portia. Whoever picks the correct casket can marry her.
When we meet our heroine, she is inundated with suitors from all over the world and lucky for her, none of them guess correctly. Portia is in love with Bassanio, a young nobleman from Venice. When Bassanio finally raises the money to travel to Belmont to try his luck, Portia is excited and nervous about the outcome.
What has just happened?
In the moments before this monologue Bassanio has just chosen the lead casket. He opens it to find Portia’s portrait and a scroll inside that confirms he has won Portia’s hand in marriage. Bassanio says he is feeling overwhelmed and needs assurance from Portia that it’s true ‘So, thrice fair-lady, stand I even so, As doubtful whether what I see be true, Until confirmed, signed, ratified by you.’ She replies with this beautiful monologue.
Let’s break down our scripts a little bit, I like to use the following symbols to beat my script:
Space = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,
Such as I am:
though for myself alone
I would not be ambitious in my wish,
To wish myself much better; yet, for you
I would be trebled twenty times myself;
A thousand times more fair, ten thousand times more rich;
That only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtue, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account; but the full sum of me
Is sum of something, which, to term in gross,
Is an unlesson’d girl, unschool’d, unpractised;
Happy in this, she is not yet so old
But she may learn; happier than this,
She is not bred so dull but she can learn;
Happiest of all is that her gentle spirit
Commits itself to yours to be directed,
As from her lord, her governor, her king.
Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted: but now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o’er myself: and even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord:
I give them with this ring;
Which when you part from, lose, or give away,
Let it presage the ruin of your love
And be my vantage to exclaim on you.
Here’s the monologue written out again, but this time, translated into modern english! This will help you to better understand the text, the character and story.
You see me standing here, Lord Bassanio,
just as I am.
For my sake, I would not wish very hard,
To be any better, yet, for you,
I would be three multiplied by twenty, times better than I am,
A thousand times more beautiful, ten thousand times richer,
Just so you would think better of me,
I would be more virtuous, more beautiful, have more property, better friends,
But everything I am, the total of it all, is an uneducated, naive girl.
The good thing is I am not so old,
That I cannot learn, even better,
I am not so dumb, that I cannot learn.
And best of all, my spirit
Commits itself to you, to be directed,
My lord, my governor, my king.
Myself and everything I own, is now yours.
Up until this moment, I was in charge
Of this mansion, I was the master of these servants,
I owned myself, but now, even in this moment,
This house, these servants, and me,
Are now yours, my Lord.
I give them to you with this ring
Which if you part from it, loose it or give it away,
It will foreshadow the end of your love,
And be my opportunity to denounce you.
Make sure you look up and try to understand all of Shakespeares words, particularly any unfamiliar words.
Trebled: Becomes three times as large
Livings: Land, property, wealth
Exceed: Greater in number or size
Term in gross: To express in full/whole amount
Unpractised: Wanting experience/this could be sexual experience, depending on your interpretation
Bred so dull: Brought up so stupidly/dumb
Presage: Foreshadow or signal
My vantage to exclaim on you: My opportunity to call you out/yell at you/denounce you
This speech is a beautiful declaration of love from Portia to Bassanio, but inside of it sits many nods to one of the other main themes of the play: money. Note the language; full sum, account, gross, livings, ten thousand times more rich. Portia uses a lot of ‘money talk’ when describing herself and her value. She might be in love but she understands how to talk the talk in the world of money and men.
Juxtaposed to the theme of money, is the theme of hidden value. Bassanio won Portia by not judging the lead casket by its appearance. Portia will soon disguise herself as a man and become unrecognisable to her husband. So, Portia’s first line You see me Lord Bassanio, where I am, such as I am, offers a moment of honesty and vulnerability.
Portia declares her love fully and gives everything of hers over to Bassanio. For a modern actor, this speech can feel a little outdated and Portia, not very feminist. So how do we resolve this? Do we play the scene as it reads or is there subtext to be found that might help a modern actor?
Portia follows up this giving over of power and property by also giving Bassanio her ring to wear. She says it is a symbol of his love for her. If he loses it, she will be able to denounce him, which would be pretty damming in those days. You could interpret these final lines as Portia’s insurance policy for herself and her marriage. Portia is no one’s fool.