The will of Portia’s father immediately surfaces as the central obstacle to the comedic plot-line of The Merchant of Venice. It is a clear example of a patriarch’s legal posthumous authority. Portia’s role as the central female protagonist leads most critics to focus on the restrictions that the will sets on her freedom. Much less discussed is the will’s control over Portia’s numerous male suitors.
The will stipulates specifically that a suitor must agree to never marry another woman if he fails the test of the caskets. This stipulation presents serious risk to any man that desires to marry Portia. Indeed, it seems as if a number of suitors have given up their quest to marry Portia upon learning her dead father’s terms:
“You need not fear, lady, the having any of these lords. They have acquainted me with their determinations, which is indeed to return to their home and to trouble you with no more suit unless you may be won by some other sort than your father’s imposition depending on the caskets.” (I.2. 100-105)
The fact that men avoid trying the casket test suggests some anxiety towards the possibility that their future eligibility might be threatened.
I find this stipulation interesting because, in practice, it is completely unenforceable. Each one of Portia’s suitors comes from a land many miles away from Belmont. Thus, what actually prevents the prince of Morocco and the prince of Aragon from going back to their respective kingdoms and marrying someone anyway, in defiance of Portia’s dead father? To understand their anxiety better, lets analyze the language that describes the rules. To Morocco, Portia decrees,
“You must take your chance
And either not attempt to choose at all
Or swear before you choose, if you choose wrong
Never to speak to lady afterward
In way of marriage. Therefore be advised.” (II.1. 40-44)
And to Aragon, after he explains himself the rules of the test, Portia says,
“To these injunctions every one doth swear
That comes to hazard for my worthless self.” (II.9. 16-17)
There is no mention of a physical contract that men sign—they only “swear” to Portia that they will never marry another woman. Whereas Portia, as property of her father, is legally bound by his will, the men are only bound by their honor and good word.
Of course, in Venetian as well as Elizabethan society, the strength of a man’s promise lies not only between him and his interlocutor, but him, his interlocutor, and God. Both the word “swear,” repeatedly used to describe the nature of the suitor’s contract, and Aragon’s phrase, “enjoined by oath” (II.9. 9) would have contained significant theological overtones in Shakespeare’s time.
So is it possible to say that as Morocco and Aragon go off, defeated by their failure, the will of Portia’s father continues to restrict their own ‘free will’?
Given other examples in the play, it is clear that Shakespeare holds physical contracts over verbal promises, even if they are religious. Bassanio and Gratiano promise to Portia and Nerissa that they will never give away their rings, symbolically promising faithfulness to both their wives and God. Later in the play, however, both characters ‘give away’ their rings—and face no real consequences. On the other hand, the legal contract between Antonio and Shylock gets upheld unconditionally. During the trial scene, countless arguments for Christian morality falter against the rule of law. Antonio only escapes because of a minor legal technicality.
Thus, the failed suitors’ promise to uphold Portia’s father’s will (noticeably only given before choosing a casket), can not be seen as practically binding. This fact clearly distinguishes their role in the patriarchy from that of Portia, a woman. The unsuccessful suitors, though disappointed, leave freely to do what they want with their lives, while Portia remains stuck on her island of Belmont.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2010. Print.