|Portia by Millais|
I have a confession to make.
When I did research in preparation to write my adaptation of The Merchant of Venice, I did not investigate the names of the characters. I did not look up the name Bassanio, or Gratiano, or Jessica, etc. I thought that the names were not relevant to the matter at hand.
And I didn't look up the meaning of the name Portia.
Oh how I wish I had!
Did you know that the name Portia comes from a Roman clan name, derived from the Latin "porcus" or "porcius" -- which means "pig?"
Portia the pig??
Why on Earth would Shakespeare give "fair" Portia such an un-fair name?
Well, if you have read my adaptation of Merchant, you will see that while I did not know that Portia was literally a pig, I had already discovered the un-fair Portia within the play.
As I read Portia's lines I sensed that she was far from lovely and fair and righteous. In fact, I discovered evidence that she is the exact opposite. And I had a strong sense that she was a glutton. That's why I introduced the running gag where she is almost always seen with food in her hands and a with her mouth stuffed.
Just look at the very first lines she has with Nerissa, her maid, in Act I, Scene II:
You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were inPORTIA
the same abundance as your good fortunes are: and
yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit
with too much as they that starve with nothing. It
is no mean happiness therefore, to be seated in the
mean: superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but
competency lives longer.
I added the emphasis to point out the clues I picked up on, the first of which is "little body."
If we accept that Portia is accurately describing herself as petite then there is nothing funny. But if Merchant is indeed the comedy it is classified as, then perhaps there is a joke in Portia's very first line. What if Portia is in fact... portly?
I also picked up on the fact that Nerissa is weary of listening to Portia whine about how "aweary" she is: "You would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in the same abundance as your good fortunes are."
Translation: How can you complain, when you have so much?
She then tells Portia that people who have a lot (surfeit with too much) can be sick just as those that "starve" with nothing, i.e. Nerissa. She counsels Portia that to be happy is to be in the middle, "seated in the mean." She also warns Portia that she will live longer by not having too much, "white hairs" come sooner with "superfluity."
How I love Portia's reply to Nerissa's pointed advice: "Good sentences and well pronounced."
Translation: Yeah, yeah, whatever.
We can hardly blame Nerissa for giving a final dig at Portia: "They would be better, if well followed."
I ask you, how does Portia come across in these very first lines?
Does she comes across as a fair and wise princess?
Or does she sound more like Kim Kardashian?
I made the conclusion, long before I learned that the name Portia means pig, that Shakespeare wanted to create a princess from Belmont who was fair, lovely, wise, and delightful -- in her own mind!
What would Shakespeare's audience see in her?
I don't want to ruin the surprise for those of you who haven't read my adaptation of Merchant -- but let's just say that Portia was not fair in appearance -- she wouldn't have looked anything like the painting by Millais.
And her behavior was anything but fair, especially to Shylock in the trial scene. Under false pretenses -- dressed as a man and acting as a lawyer -- she makes a mockery of the bond between Antonio and Shylock!
I think Shakespeare's audience would have howled with laughter at this scheming, bawdy, gluttonous princess.
After all, in a comedy, what's funny about a princess who is wise, virtuous and fair?