The greatness of Shakespeare as a playwriter doesn’t depend only on his tragedies, but also on his comedies.
He wrote about 14 comedies and probably the most important and brilliant of these is “The merchant of Venice”.
The plot is based on Giovanni Fiorentino’s “Il pecorone”, and in part on a story from Richard Robinson’s version of the “Gesta Romanorum”.
The play is formed by two interwoven plots.
The first one is set in Venice, where Antonio, a wealthy merchant, in order to help his friend Bassanio, that wants to go visit the girl he’s in love with –Portia-, asks Shylock, a rich Jew, to lend him a sum of money.
Shylock accepts, but, in order to make sure he’s gonna have his money back from Antonio, makes him sign a bond, in which he must promise that, if he won’t be able to repay Shylock, the rich Jew will have the permission take a pound of flesh from the merchant’s body.
Before letting him marry his daughter, Portia’s father prepares for Bassanio a sort of trick: he wants the young man to guess which one of the three caskets he has put in front of him, contains Portia’s portrait.
Having chosen the right casket, Bassanio eventually gets the permission to marry Portia.
Meanwhile, in Venice, as Antonio can’t repay Shylock, he’s taken to the Court.
But during the trial Portia, disguised as a lawyer, arrives and rescues Antonio’s life.
A "slip of the tongue"
There are two very famous scenes in this play: the one of the trial, and the one in which, in Belmont, Bassanio has to make his choice about the three caskets.
In this scene also the character of Portia has a great importance: the girl is tempted to help Bassanio with his choice, but she has also promised her father not to reveal him anything.
So, she begs Bassanio to wait before picking up, hoping that, delaying the moment of his choice, she will be able to pull away the risk of losing him.
She also understands it’s not very convenient for a girl to show her feelings so clearly.
In this scene she says a sentence that Freud defined “a slip of the tongue”: “One half of me is yours, the other half yours”.
She doesn’t understand her mistake and, as Freud said, at the end she reconciles the two statements by adding “Mine own I would say, but if mine, then yours. And so all yours.”
Portia represents the new Renaissance woman: educated, clever, obedient…but also emancipated, intelligent, self-confident.
The fact she’s worried and startled is shown by Shakespeare beyond her control: he divides her sentences into two halves, thus giving the impression of her fear and hesitation, and of the division of her feelings too.
Her speech is a sequence of contrasting statements, and if we read those lines out aloud, we can’t read them fluently. We instead have to make a pause every now and then, thus sharing Portia’s hesitations and her fear to lose the man she loves.