In adept businessman of them all” (p 68)

In “The Merchant of Venice” by William
Shakespeare, readers generally associate Shylock, or more often Antonio, as the
merchant of the play’s title. Through a close reading of the play however, it
is clear that the language of commerce surrounds Portia. Though several critics
such as Keith Geary and Karoline Szatek refers to Portia as “the most adept
businessman of them all” (p 68) and a “vigorous tradeswoman” respectively, none
of 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 accomplishments
could perhaps answer the ironic question that Portia posits, “Which is the
merchant here?” (p 153)


            In the
play, the language of commerce continuously surrounds Portia. In her engagement
for example, Bassanio utilised commercial metaphors, telling Portia that he could
not 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 in
gross” and “sum” (p 113). Later when Bassanio learns that Antonio’s life is at
risk, Portia opened her purse strings and offered six-thousand ducats, which
she later doubles and triples for her “dear bought” Bassanio (p 121-123). The
mercantile language resumes in the end of the play when she issued an “oath to
credit” (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 to
Antonio as a merchant. However, the mercantile language does not define Antonio
and he does not utilise it to define himself. Similarly, though Shylock often
speaks of his ducats, he rarely refers to the trading of goods and services, but
only about collecting and hoarding. Portia, on the other hand, stood out as she
floats around the play making impressive deals.

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            It is
undeniable that Portia is a representative of Queen Elizabeth Tudor. In John
Neale’s biography of Elizabeth, he wrote “some thought her very handsome,
others rather comely than handsome…her hairs were golden, but more red than
yellow; her skin very fine…” (p 28). Portia is similarly of many suitors, and one
of her failed suitors, Morocco, briefly addresses the lady of Belmont as “fair
Portia” (p 77). When describing Portia to Antonio, Bassanio said she has “sunny
locks” that “hangs on her temples like Golden Fleece” (p 19). Other than her
physical similarities, Portia’s mercantile behaviour very much resembles
Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s distinction, Neale wrote, was her parsimony and
financial sense. Like Portia, she controls the purse strings and those who are
in charge of the money of her marriage and the monarch.


            Other than
the mercantile language that she and others employ to describe her, Portia’s
actions prove to be an even more concrete evidence that she is “the” merchant
of the play. In a nutshell, she intervenes in trial to save her husband’s
“friend”, punishes the antagonist and restores Antonio’s ships. Portia was the
ultimate negotiator and master trader of the play as she grants a tripartite
marriage in her household, lavishes Bassanio with her wealth and become an doctor
in law for her husband’s best friend, Antonio—in exchange for companionship,
harmony and commodities that she values. Though Antonio and Shylock is most
often referred to “the” merchant of the play, they demonstrate very little entrepreneurial
ability. Antonio loses his ships and nearly his life and Shylock his daughter,
ducats, ring and religion. Portia, on the other hand, demonstrates her
credibility as a merchant as she loses nothing and gains everything at the end
of the play.


wrote that Shakespeare carefully crafts his titles, and I personally think that
the “merchant” of the title is deliberately ambiguous and open for the reader’s
interpretation. Though it is generally associated with Antonio and Shylock, the
mercantile language that surrounds Portia as well as her accomplishments make
it difficult for readers to neglect the possibility that Portia is “the”
merchant of the play.