Portia

From Academic Kids

For other uses of the name Portia, see Portia (disambiguation).

Portia is a name shared by two fictional heroines in plays by William Shakespeare. The better known of the two is the heroine of The Merchant of Venice. This Portia, a rich heiress, is obliged by the terms of her father's will to set a puzzle to all prospective suitors, forcing them to choose between three caskets: of gold, silver and lead. Portia favours Bassanio, but is not allowed to give him any clues to assist in his choice. As a test of his fidelity, she disguises herself as a lawyer and represents Bassanio's friend, Antonio, in court, saving his life.

Portia is one of the most prominent of Shakespeare's heroines in his mature romantic comedies. She is beautiful, gracious, rich, intelligent, quick witted and with high standards in men. As well, she obeys her father's will while having a determination to obtain Bassanio while being tactful to the Princes of Morocco and Arragon who unsuccessfully seek her hand. In the court scenes, Portia outwits Shylock and solves Antonio's life when everyone else fails. It is Portia who delivers one of the most famous speeches in The Merchant of Venice:

        The quality of mercy is not strained.
          It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
          Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
          It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

The strength of Portia as a role has made it attractive to many notable actresses. Frances Abington, Sarah Siddons and Elizabeth Whitlock all played the role in the 18th century when actresses first starting appearing on stage. More recently, the role has been played in the cinema and on television by a number of notable actresses such as Maggie Smith, Claire Bloom, Sybil Thorndike and Joan Plowright.

The character of Portia has had a considerable and longlived cultural impact. Portia is the name John Adams used to address his wife Abigail in his letters, presumably after Shakespeare's character. (Abigail addressed her husband as "Lysander" in letters, another reference to a Shakespearean character.

The New England School of Law was originally known as the Portia Law School when it was established in 1908 as a women only law school and was known by that name until 1969. On Rumpole of the Bailey, Rumpole called Phillida Erskine-Brown (née Trant) the "Portia of our Chambers".

In 1986, a moon of Uranus was named after Portia. A version of the character has even appeared in the Mirror Universe of Star Trek.

The lesser-known Shakespearean Portia is the wife of Brutus in Julius Caesar, and is an alternate spelling for Porcia. This Portia, though she makes only one appearance, comes across as a loyal and devoted wife, a worthy confidante for her husband, and her role is the only substantial woman's part in the play. Actresses such as Deborah Kerr, Virginia McKenna and Diana Rigg have played the part in movies and television productions.

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