The Commodification of Femininity: Portia’s Exchange for Autonomy
In Marxism and Literary Criticism, Terry Eagleton argues that within literary texts cultural ideologies can only be discovered by looking at “the significant silences of a text, in its gaps and absences,” and it is the critic who must voice these silences in order to make the text speak (34-35). By discussing the “significant silences” in The Merchant of Venice, I will suggest ways to reconsider issues of femininity, homosexuality, materiality, social mobility, and pay special attention to how these issues become valuable methods of social exchange. As I discuss the significance of these transactions, I will also be focusing on how Portia becomes the silent merchant in the play and how she functions as a fulcrum of multiple methods of exchange. We will see how she first subverts her patriarchal world by playing the obedient pawn, and then silently moves towards agency by investing in a risky contract with Bassanio. Taking a look at this investment is significant; it reveals not only how other characters become commodities in Portia’s exchange (how their debt is transformed into her assets) but also the way she uses a patriarchal conception of marriage to free herself from the very system that binds her to this contract. Under the guise of the dutiful daughter, Portia seems to accept social codes of feminine behavior. As we shall see, however, she silently transgresses the role of proper lady in exchange for the “unruly woman” who is capable of subverting social codes in order to manage her own possessions. As Karen Newman suggests, Portia’s subversion “affects not only the distribution of power but also perhaps structures of exchange themselves that historically have insured male hegemony and patriarchal power” (29). Although Portia’s power seems limited to the confines of her situation, she uses patriarchal structures of exchange (marriage) to find movement within her bondage. Portia knows that while she cannot change the patriarchal system in which she lives, she can negotiate the spaces of her confinement in order to disrupt traditional codes of femininity, and essentially commodify this ideology in exchange for agency.
Feminist scholars such as Catherine Mackinnon have argued that there is a possibility for movement within the boundaries of social confinement. While she suggests that a woman cannot transgress the objectification (commodification) of her body because “for women, there is no distinction between objectification and alienation…women have not authored objectifications, we have been them,” Mackinnon would not disagree with the idea that women such as Portia can appropriate this objectification to problematize this ideology (253-254). If we assume that a woman’s sexuality is the basis of social exchange in a patriarchal system (just as many Marxists assume that “work” is the basis of social exchange) then its feasible to also argue that this sexuality can be appropriated to gain agency within the confines of this system. As suggested above, Portia utilizes her sexuality as a commodity—as the basis for power or agency within a system that allows her little social movement. This type of restricted mobility is especially apparent in the beginning of the play when Portia reveals to Nerissa how her father’s will has transformed her into an object of exchange. As Lawrence Norman argues, Portia has the power to “dispose her own property and voice, but not her body in a sexual relation of her choosing” (56). In a sense, she is trapped within a cell of skin; her body has become a commodity for her dead father’s possession. Portia reveals to Nerissa that there are greater powers in possession of her body when she explains that her “little body is aweary of this great world” (I.ii.1-2). Her confession to Nerissa suggests that she is aware that her father’s “will,” both his “testament” and his “desire” to have another possess her, confines her to a commodified status. This is even more apparent when Portia suggests to Nerissa that, “I may neither choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (I.ii.20-22). Although it seems that Portia has little choice in the confinement of her father’s will, there are ways in which she manipulates this situation to give herself more choice.
In the casket scenes, Portia plays a larger role in determining her fate by investing in Bassanio as her choice for suitor. While there is a clear risk that one of the other suitors (Morocco or Aragon) may choose the right casket, and therefore claim Portia, her property, and all her assets as their own, Bassanio seems to have the upper hand in claiming the prize. Like many other scholars who are beginning to question Portia’s role as innocent bystander or shrewd participator in this sexual “lottery,” I would argue that the “silences” in the text encourages us to debate about the possibility of subversion. Regardless of whether Portia intended to give hints to Bassanio such as suggesting that she “stands for sacrifice” or singing a song with multiple syllables rhyming with “lead,” there are gaps in the text that allow us room to interpret Portia as knowledgeable of both her situation and the secrets to unlocking the binding of the will. Perhaps rather than looking at what has been spoken in the text, we should be examining what has been left unsaid. For instance, Portia has very particular reasons for disliking her other suitors, she complains that one loves wine too much, another horses too much, one is too serious, and the other too giddy, but she never really explains why she would choose Bassanio over all of these other suitors. We know from Nerissa that they have met before and that Bassanio, as “a scholar and a soldier” is “the best deserving of a fair lady” (I.iii.95-99). We also know that Portia “remember[s] him well” and “remember[s] him worthy of [Nerissa's] prais,” however, she never really explains why he is worthy (I.iii.100-101). What is Portia neglecting to tell the audience in terms of Bassanio’s value? Why would she rather be with someone who has been known for his impulsive generosity and poor decisions regarding material property rather than choosing a man of great wealth and status? Is she blinded by love or is there another reason for choosing Bassanio?
As many other critics have indicated, all of the suitors that she rejects are outsiders to the Venetian culture; there is a Neapolitan Prince, the Palatine count, the French lord, the English baron, and the German Duke, all of which may have very different beliefs regarding the social codes of marriage. While there are many places in the text that indicate other ideological reasons for Portia’s rejection (such as racism or ethnocentrism), there may be an even better reason for investing in a Venetian. As Carol Leventen suggests:
Venetian women attained and exercised far more financial independence and influence than was possible for women of similar status in England…Venetian women invested in business ventures, disposed of property as they saw fit and left it to whom they chose, thereby constituting, even within the limitations imposed by a patriarchal and patrilinear society, a force to be reckoned with (64).
Although it is clear that Portia was not subject to the same financial independence as the Venetian women described by Leventen, it is probable that she had more leverage as a Venetian than other women who were married outside this culture. Thus, if she were to marry a suitor outside of Venice, she would most likely risk loosing the economic privileges she would otherwise receive in her own culture. Perhaps this is why Portia is so intent on helping Bassanio choose the right casket, and goes so far to say that she “could teach [him] / How to choose right,” if he would only stay a month or two (III.ii.10-11). Even though she admits that she is forsworn and could never tell him outright which casket to choose, she is divided between the patriarchal duties to her father and the hope that she will marry someone who will allow her some autonomy. In fact, her self-division begins to reveal that she is less concerned with Bassanio’s love than with gaining financial independence. Her dividedness is especially clear when she tells Bassanio that:
“Mine own I would say; but if mine then yours, / And so all yours! O these naughty times / Puts bars between the owners and their rights! / And so, through yours, not yours…” (III.ii.17-20).
As Harry Berger suggests, “self-division makes Portia address their relationship as a struggle for power and possession, a struggle which her words register as they shift back and forth between the two poles of division—either ‘mine’ or ‘yours,’ but not ‘ours” (158). Ironically, while these lines suggest that Portia may have had difficulty sharing her wealth, she eventually contradicts the struggle for power and possession by giving up everything she owns to Bassanio. Or, does she? I would argue that there is more involved in this “sacrifice.”
By establishing that she is willing to “sacrifice” all that she has for Bassanio, Portia subscribes to patriarchal duties, but also situates herself in a position where she can establish control over both herself and Bassanio. When she tells Bassanio: “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’s,” Portia is relinquishing control while also reminding him that she was once in control. In other words, her generosity is “carefully itemized to remind him of her value and worth, and hence his obligation” (Berger 161). Portia is willing to marry him as long as he acknowledges her value within the marriage. The token of the ring becomes yet another reminder of Portia’s worth and the obligation that Bassanio owes to his “Queen.” While the pledging of the ring seems to represent “a visual sign of her love and submission to Bassanio…a representation of Portia’s acceptance of Elizabethan marriage which was characterized by women’s subjection,” her final words in this vow contradict the acceptance of this system of exchange (Newman 25). She ends the vow with a foreboding warning of the risk involved with the binding of their contract, suggesting that she is willing to enter into this investment only if she can insure her losses. Portia warns Bassanio that she will give all her possessions with the binding of the ring on one condition: “When you part from, lose, or give away, Let it presage the ruin of your love, And be my vantage to exclaim on you” (III.ii.172-174). If Bassanio parts from the ring, Portia will be able to renounce the contract and Bassanio will loose possession over her, and therefore consecrate the prophecy of the casket: “who chooseth me shall must give and hazarth all he hath” (II.vii.9). Bassanio will be the one who “sacrifices” in the relationship if he breaks the pledge to keep the ring. However, this exchange is contingent upon the fact that Bassanio seems worthy to keep such a vow, up until this point, Portia does not realize that Bassanio may be just as reckless with her ring as he is with money.
We have already discussed why Bassanio’s Venetian background helped to secure his position as a worthy suitor, but the more interesting question is why Portia stays with Bassanio after she finds out that he is a “braggart.” When Antonio’s letter arrives, Bassanio is forced to reveal that, while he never pretended to be rich, “Rating myself at nothing, you shall see / How much I was a braggart…I have engaged myself to a dear friend, / Engaged my friend to his mere enemy, / To feed my means” (III.ii.256-262). While Portia has known that Bassanio’s “state was nothing,” this is the first glimpse of not only how much debt he is really in, but also that he is “engaged” or “indebted” to someone other than his “dear” wife. Bassanio begins to reveal his original exchange with Antonio when he reads Portia the letter, a letter that suggests more than financial obligations. Just as Bassanio addresses his wife as “O sweet Portia,” we here an echo of the same endearment by Antonio who addresses the letter to “Sweet Bassanio,” and explains that, “all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death” (III.ii.317-318). Although Portia has every reason to be frustrated with Bassanio, who has lied about how he received his wealth and is now ready to bypass the marriage to help Antonio, Portia not only allows him to leave, but gives Bassanio the money to save his friend. The question is why she would marry someone who might jeopardize her financially. The fact that Bassanio is consistently in debt could suggest that he would not only want but need more control over Portia’s investments, and yet she is ready to take this risk. One is compelled to question what Portia values in this investment.
Perhaps the answer to this question lies not in Portia’s exchange with Bassanio, but rather in Bassanio’s exchange with Antonio. Just as Portia is attempting a risk in her contract with Bassanio, there seems to be an underlying risk in the relationship between Bassanio and Antonio. The juxtaposition between the two seems to suggest that both are intertwined with financial and sexual exchanges. As Lars Engle argues, the exchange of communication between Antonio and Bassanio is “heavy with an uncomfortable sense of obligation…a discomfort—beyond that of a debtor speaking to a creditor” (24). This discomfort stems from Bassanio’s confession: “To you Antonio / I owe the most in money and in love, And from your love I have warranty / to unburthen all my plots and purposes / How to get clear of all the debts I owe” (I.i.130-134). Bassanio’s financial debt to Antonio is an obligation that Bassanio feels he must repay in order to “get clear” of what he owes. Unfortunately, he cannot repay Antonio without entering into another contract; a contract that will force him to expose all of his “plots” and “purposes.” Portia, a “lady richly left,” becomes a part of Bassanio’s “plot” to pay back Antonio. As Engle’s suggests, Antonio indicates that he is aware of the possible contract between the two, when he asks Bassanio to “tell me now what lady is the same / To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage—that today you promised to tell me of” (I.i.119-121). His knowledge of this exchange may have prompted his depression in the beginning of the play, when Salerio and Solanio ask if his sadness is caused by the possible ruin of his ships or if it is love that plagues him. Although Antonio answers in the negative to both, there is the possibility that he cannot reply truthfully without either revealing his vulnerability as a merchant or as a man who has homoerotic desires toward Bassanio.
Similar to Bassanio who has a financial investment in Portia, Antonio has an emotional investment in Bassanio, and is willing to also give up everything that he has in order to prove his love. In fact, Antonio’s words of devotion closely parallel Portia’s offering to Bassanio when Antonio explains: “My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlock’d to your occasions” (I.i.138-139). Like Portia, everything Antonio owns is as Bassanio’s disposal even though he may not have the means to do so. Engle’s explains that Antonio “offers…not only his money but himself, and seems to be imagining, even desiring, an ‘occasion’ for self-sacrifice” (24). Thus, when he tells Bassanio, “Thou know’st that all my fortunes are at sea, Neither have I money, nor commodity / To raise a present sum,” and yet, still offers to lend the credit of his name in order to help Bassanio, the audience knows that he is devoted to this relationship (I.i.177-178). However, there is a clear difference between Antonio and Portia’s sacrificial offerings, especially in the motives for entering into exchange with Bassanio. Antonio seems to elicit an emotional desire that goes beyond the boundaries of friendship; he exhibits what Eve Kosofky Sedgwick defines as “male homosexual desire.” This desire includes “the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual genitality, and economic exchange—within which the various forms of traffic in women take place” (227). In effect, Portia is trafficked within this exchange: Bassanio needs to ask Antonio’s permission to woo Portia in order to return the money that he has borrowed but in doing so, he must “lend” his services to Portia. While Antonio treats “Bassanio’s courtship of Portia as part of a complex economic and erotic transaction between two males,” Portia’s treatment of this transaction is a very different type of bargain (Engle 26).
When Portia realizes that Bassanio is already “engaged” to Antonio and decides to help her husband, she is not rescuing Bassanio, but rather securing her investment in the relationship. As Lars Engle suggests, she “turns immediately to money, to male disguise, and to the law to protect her status as a principal and to avoid becoming an object of homosocial exchange” (34). In fact, she takes control over Antonio’s and Bassanio’s exchange by providing the money that will essentially save both of them. Valerie Wayne argues that when Portia “offers to pay [Bassanio’s] debt twenty times over, she doesn’t say, despite ‘everything I have is yours’ avowel, ‘hey, lighten up; just write a cheque; it’s a joint account now;’ she says, in effect, ‘I will write that cheque” (72). She continues to indicate that she has autonomy in this relationship regardless of having a husband. When she decides to participate in the trial, she is there to protect her investments. Although many critics believe that protecting this investment includes severing the financial and erotic bonds that Antonio and Bassanio have, I believe she has very different motives for saving Antonio. While she assures that financial balance is on her side by wiping out the debts that Bassanio has to Antonio and essentially “re-equips him as a merchant so that he will not turn into a dependent,” she also uses this homoerotic relationship to free herself from her father’s bond (Engle 36). By giving Bassanio a ring—a symbol of faith in a heterosexual and patriarchal bond—and then testing this bond with a partner who may be homosexual, Portia has a greater chance of forcing Bassanio into breaking that bond. Once Bassanio breaks this bond, Portia has the “vantage” to “exclaim” on him, and the ability to secure her autonomy by reiterating that he is indebted to her both financially and sexually.
When Bassanio does actually break this bond, and is convinced by Antonio to let Balthazar (Portia) “have the ring / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment,” Portia has both Bassanio and Antonio doubly indebted to her for breaking the “commandment” (IV.ii.445-447). Karen Newman explains that, “by obeying Antonio’s exhortation and giving his ring to Balthazar, Bassanio affirms homosocial bonds—the exchange of women, here represented by Portia’s ring, sustains relations between men” (31). However, when Portia allows Bassanio to break the bond and encourages him to retain a relationship with Antonio, she can keep both her financial independence and possibly retain her heterosexual independence. She does, after all warn Bassanio that, if he can be “liberal in offers,” she too, “will not deny…my body nor my husband’s bed” (V.i.226-227). While some claim that this is evidence of a jealousy she holds for Antonio and Bassanio’s relationship, I would argue that here she is unwilling to become commodified within their exchange, and is instead using this opportunity to gain independence within her restricted situation. In fact, Karen Newman argues that the symbol of this independence (the ring) “picks up new meanings which contradict its status as a sign of male possession, fidelity, and values; it moves from Bassanio to Balthazar to Portia to Antonio and back to Bassanio again and the very multiplicity of exchange undermines its prior signification” (28). In using her social status as a commodity—as the ring itself—Portia has subverted the patriarchal meaning of this commodity by shifting its sexual and economic positions. The shifting of the ring’s value actually parallels a change in Portia’s value that was initiated at the beginning of the play with the casket scene. Similar to her symbolic representation as a ring, Portia began the play as the commodified casket. Lawrence Norman argues that the caskets represent the body of Portia because they are “symbols of the essential thing in woman, and therefore woman herself” (61). Portia’s commodification is reiterated by both the picture lying within the casket and the inscription that lies on the outside of the casket. Like the casket which has an outside appearance that is unlike its inside, Portia is a woman who resembles the subservient woman, but who is really making her tokenism explicit in order to transgress it.
After Portia has ensured her autonomy by binding Antonio and Bassanio in obligation to her, we see a shift in her language, indicating a movement towards transgressing her original, obedient status. As Newman suggests, “instead of being ‘directed / As from her lord, her governor, her king,’ Portia resumes her role as lord of Belmont” (32). Once Bassanio breaks his vow, she declines from offering her house, servants, and herself to Bassanio as she has done previously, and instead states: “I have not yet / Enter’d my house,” suggesting that she has repossessed her property (V.i.271-272). In addition, she has decided the fate of Antonio as well as Jessica and Lorenzo in order to secure financial investments. She has forced Shylock to pay half of all he owns to Jessica and Lorenzo when he dies in order to prevent the “starved” couple from becoming dependent on her. She also emphasizes her power of control over Antonio’s destiny by “giving Antonio the mysterious letter, but refusing to reveal how she came by it: ‘You shall not know by what strange accident / I chanced on this letter” (Newman 32). Although the dialogue does not directly implicate Portia’s hand in this success, it does suggest that, if she was involved, she has no intentions of giving Antonio any knowledge of this involvement. Once again, she has succeeded in placing Antonio in obligation, so much so that he feels compelled to tell her that she has “given [him] life and living” (V.i.284-285). By saving his life, giving him back his financial living, and reaffirming his sexual relationship, Portia has added to her “absolute mastery of the systems of exchange in the play,” including the manipulation of homosexual exchange (Engle 37). She has used her ability to manipulate multiple methods of exchange, whether it is language, relationships, or financial transactions, she has placed herself in a position of control, and has done so by using the very system that tries to control her. As Newman explains, “Portia’s unruliness in language and behavior exposes the male homosexual bond, the exchange of women insures, but it also multiplies the terms of sexual trafficking so as to disrupt those structures of exchange that insure hierarchical gender relations” (32). If she exhibited signs of jealousy or scandalized the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, Portia would loose control over the structures of exchange. She would not be able to maintain the appearance of the subservient daughter while also gaining autonomy and ultimate control over her financial, sexual, and social exchanges.
Although Portia has often described herself as an “unlesson’ed girl, unschool’d, unpractice’d,” and willing to “learn” the patriarchal obligations expected by her “lord,” all stereotypical “feminine” traits, she is the only character left in the play who retains full control of her financial affairs (III.ii.159). In fact, she retains control over the other characters financial affairs as well; Bassanio, Antonio, Lorenzo, Jessica, and even Shylock have been manipulated by Portia’s transactions. In one scene, she has saved Antonio and returned his wealth through a mysterious letter that only she has knowledge of. She has also ensured Bassanio’s obligation to her by taking care of his debt and saving his “friend.” In addition, she has outwitted Shylock and has secured her own wealth by giving half his possessions to Jessica and Lorenzo. In a sense, she becomes the true merchant in the play, using her property (body and wealth) as leverage in the exchange system. However, she does so under the guise of proper gender codes, using the system to her own advantage. Newman argues that, “for a woman, such behavior is a form of simulation, a confusion that elides the conventional poles of sexual difference by denaturalizing gender-coded behaviors; such simulation perverts authorized systems of gender and power. It is inversion with a difference” (33). The “difference” is that Shakespeare has given Portia the power to follow her own creed: to be a “good Divine / [who] followes [her] owne instructions” (I.ii.13). Shakespeare gives Portia the ability to follow her own instructions by letting her control her own value as a commodity within a patriarchal system. Thus, if we agree with Eve Sedgwick, who believes that all male relationships are, in fact, an exchange of women, then Portia offers one of the most problematic exchanges in gender politics. She overturns not only the capitalist market by subverting her status as the object of exchange—essentially becoming the merchant in this exchange—but she appropriates a masculine role and questions male authority within this exchange system. Ultimately, it is the bard who uses Portia as a way to let us discover our own cultural anxieties within this system (both patriarchal and capitalist), allowing us to see not only the key moments of subversion, but also the “significant silences” within the text.
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Shakespeare, William. “The Merchant of Venice.” The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greeblatt. New York: N.Y. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1997.
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