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In giving us Portia, Shakespeare has given us a holy woman who is the match for any of his male characters in terms of virtue, intelligence, wit and wisdom. He also shows us in his characterization of women their true dignity as human persons, as prone to weakness and wickedness as men but equally called to the greatness of sanctity.

Last week’s essay on Shakespeare’s characterization of women focused on the weak and the wicked. This week, we turn our attention to those women in Shakespeare’s plays who show heroic virtue and great wisdom. We’ll begin with the sound of silence.

Noise is not always a good thing. Nor is silence necessarily submissive. If we speak with great eloquence and with angelic sweetness but have not love, we are nothing but sounding brass and a clanging cymbal. This is why, at the beginning of King Lear, the saintly Cordelia chooses to “love and be silent”. Her sisters speak with great eloquence and with angelic sweetness to flatter their father. They tell him what his prideful ears want to hear but they are lying. They do not love him. They want the self-empowerment that he can bestow upon them. They receive their worldly reward. Cordelia, on the other hand, refuses to offer her absolute allegiance to her father, the king, who symbolizes the power of the state. Lear offers political power to those who “love us most”. She loves her father but cannot utter platitudes to please his prideful ear. Indeed, it is because she loves her father that she refuses to do so. It is not good for him that those who love him should pander to his pomposity. She chooses to love and be silent. It is her very silence which proves her love for her father though the arrogant king does not see it. She cannot offer the king (or state) any allegiance beyond that which her conscience dictates is appropriate morally. Like St. Thomas More, whom Shakespeare might have had in mind, she is the king’s good servant but God’s first. She will render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s but she will not render unto him that which is God’s.

Speaking of Caesar, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shows the importance of a woman’s love by emphasizing the destructive consequences of its being shunned. As with King Lear, it is the sound of silence which speaks loudest, transcending the pomp and circumstance of all the brilliant rhetoric, the latter of which is put to the service of the power of deception. The sound of silence is heard, paradoxically, in the unheard and unheeded voice of the virtuous. It is the voice of Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, which, if heeded, would have saved Caesar’s life; it is the voice of Portia, Brutus’ wife, which, if heeded, might have urged Brutus to think twice about his involvement with the conspirators. Whereas Cordelia had chosen to love and be silent, the love of Calpurnia and Portia is silenced. The result is catastrophic.

Another holy heroine is Isabella in Measure for Measure, a Poor Clare novice who resists the lustful designs of the wicked Angelo, a puritanical hypocrite. Having condemned Isabella’s brother to death for his “lechery”, Angelo seeks to blackmail Isabella into submitting to his lust as the price of saving her brother from execution. Her brother, Claudio, had been sentenced to death for lechery after his betrothed was discovered with child. Isabella refuses the devil’s bargain and is horrified when her weak-willed brother urges her to accede to Angelo’s demands as a means of saving his own life. Unwilling to sacrifice her purity, she wins the admiration of the Duke, who is disguised as a friar: “The hand that hath made you fair hath made you good. The goodness that is cheap in beauty makes beauty brief in goodness, but grace, being the soul of your complexion, shall keep the body of it ever fair.” Aided by the Duke, Isabella helps to expose Angelo’s wickedness and then, forgiving her would-be abuser, she pleads that his life be spared.

We’ll now turn in admiration to the admirable Miranda in Shakespeare’s final play, The Tempest. “Admired Miranda!” exclaims the enamoured Ferdinand. “Indeed the top of admiration, worth what’s dearest to the world!”

Of all Shakespeare’s heroines, Miranda is the nearest to the archetypal image of feminine purity. She is shipwrecked on a desert island as a young child and has seen no man, except for her father, until she sets eyes on Ferdinand. She is innocent and unsullied, suggestive of the prelapsarian Eve. Ferdinand, for his part, is both noble and chaste, and shows himself willing, when tested by Miranda’s father, to act self-sacrificially in obedient service of his love. The purity and chastity of the young lovers is symbolized by the game of chess that they choose to play when they find themselves alone together.

We will not conclude with the heroine of Shakespeare’s final play but with the finest heroine in any of the plays. This is the incomparable and indomitable Portia in The Merchant of Venice.  As the heiress to the mysterious other-worldly realm of Belmont, symbolic of the City of God, Portia cannot be won in marriage by those who value gold or silver. To be worthy of the love of the virtuous Portia, the successful suitor must be willing to die to himself in laying down his life for the beloved.

Apart from exceeding in virtue, Portia also exceeds in wit and wisdom. During the trial of Shylock, disguised as a lawyer, she endeavours to persuade Shylock to abandon his demand for vengeance and to embrace instead the necessity of showing mercy that he might receive mercy. Her speech on “the quality of mercy” is one of the most beautiful monologues that Shakespeare ever wrote, which mirrors the beauty and morality of the heroine whom he creates to speak it, as well as the wisdom of Christian charity that she epitomizes.

Having put Shylock to the test, Portia now tests the fidelity of Bassanio, who had won her hand in marriage. Is he true to his word? Will he really lay down his life for her in embracing the self-sacrificial bond of the sacrament of marriage, signified by the ring that Portia had given him? Portia, still in disguise as the lawyer, persuades him to part with the ring, illustrating his weakness and his unwillingness to be true to his bond. Portia, having exposed Bassanio’s infidelity and weakness, does not condemn him but forgives him in an act of mercy, in stark contrast to the vengeful Shylock who had resolutely refused to show mercy and forgiveness to Antonio in the trial scene. In this final test, therefore, Portia shows herself to be practicing what she had preached in the beautiful “quality of mercy” speech.

In giving us Portia, Shakespeare has given us a holy woman who is the match for any of his male characters in terms of virtue, intelligence, wit and wisdom. He also shows us in his characterization of women their true dignity as human persons, as prone to weakness and wickedness as men but equally called to the greatness of sanctity.

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The featured image is “Portia and Shylock” (1835) by Thomas Sully, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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