Hamlet and Merchant of Venice are two of most well-known plays of Shakespeare.
Among the shinning characters of the plays, two most attractive women characters are most popular, Ophelia and Portia. For a long time, people consider the tragedy of Ophelia is because the “crulty” of Hamlet(Schlegel, 1973) and the happy ending of Portia is due to her intelligence. While no matter it’s the crulty of Hamlet or it’s the intelligence of Portia, the results of the two fair ladies come up with a premise: they live in different environments.Many criticists don’t agree the “settings” of many Shakespeare’s plays because there are some mistakes in details(Tolstoy,1906).
But there is a basic guess we can make that Ophelia is raised in the dark court of Denmark and Portia lives in bright Italy. The different environments give the two girls different backgrounds, social levels and conflicts to face. The different environments lead them to entirely different fates although they used to be so similar. She is a noble girl, young and pretty, a character written by Shakespeare. She has a lover in trouble and she wants to help.With those discription, can an individual tell whether it’s Ophelia or Portia? No. But what leads them to tatally different destinies? I think, the root cause of the distinction is the different environments they are in. The main reason is that Ophelia and Portia live in different backgrounds.
Ophelia receives a court education of Denmark. That gives her a nature of obedience. When she first appears in Hamlet, her brother, Laertes and their father Polonius admonish Ophelia against pursuing Hamlet, who they fear is not earnest about her. Then, Ophelia refuses Hamlet against her own will.Later, she talks to Hamlet under Polonius’s will, all being controlled by her father like a puppet.
There is no action she does from her own will, she always obey to her father and brother. That makes her rather repressed. In contrast, Portia is rather independent for she is educated under humanism in Italy. She has an awareness to create happiness by herself. In the surface, she chooses her husband under her father’s rule. Actually, she plays a trick to help Bassanio to win the test. Then, she uses her own knowledge and wisdom to help her lover, Bassanio to save his best friend, Antonio.
And finally, by a trick, she tests her husband’s love towards her. The environment she is in gives her a lively nature and freedom of applying her knowledge. That is also why Ophelia is so solitary and helpless while Portia can be so energetic and make a difference.
There is a further subtle point we must consider, that is the different social levels they occupied in their cases. Even though Ophelia is the daughter of a dignitary, she is the lowest in the case, wholly at the mercy of all other people. The people around her are King, Queen and Prince. She has no power and whatever she does is too tiny to help.She is so humble that no matter how hard she tries to help Hamlet, there are only insulting words as response. Hamlet cherishes her love, but he refuses her rudely and “shows indifference” towards her death(Schlegel, 1973). Her powerlessness finally makes her the sacrifice of the fighting of court. She dies like a leaf, flowing on the water.
In contrast, Portia is rather powerful. Even though she has no father, she is rather wealthy and knowlegable. The other people around are merchants and playboys. Even there are noblemen from other countries, they appeare as pursuers.
That gives Portia a relatively superior position in the story. Also she is quite socialable, so she can be introduced by the learned Bellario. The different levels of the cases determine the different effects they make. That is why Portia can be so crucial in the story while Ophelia is so vulnerabel and can just poorly die. The last but most important reason is the different conflicts they face.
Ophelia confronts with too many conflicts. At first, it’s just the conflicts between Hamlet and Claudius because Claudius killed the old King and the conflicts between Hamlet and Gertrude for Gertrude married Claudius too soon.But later, it becomes rather complex for Hamlet killes Polonius by mistake. So here comes the conflict between Hamlet and Laertes and even Hamlet and herself. As she herself being involved in the whole conspiracy of revenge, she is “incapable of her own distress”(Hamlet, 4. 7. 176) , fell into the brook and drown. On the contrary, Portia has to deal just one conflict between Shylock and Antonio.
Bassanio borrowed three thousand ducats from Shylock under the name of Antonio. Anotonio can’t pay it back in time, so according to the bond, Shylock shall cut a pound of flesh of Antonio from his bossom nearest to the heart.In order to prevent her husband’s best friend being murdered, Portia disguises herself as a man, then assumes the role of a lawyer’s apprentice whereby she saves the life of Antonio, in court.
It is unfair to say Portia wins easily, but it is true that Portia is more possible to win than Ophelia. Compare with Portia, what Ophelia has to face is too much. From the backgroud, the social level and the conflict they have to face, readers can see how a person is going to live most depends on the environment.We can make a wild guess, that even Portia in Ophelia’s place, Portia can have no chance to win.
So it is not about who is smarter and who is nobler. It’s just the environment which leads them to entirely different fates.Reference: Schlegel, August Wilhelm. Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature. Trans. John Black.
New York: AMS Press, 1973. Shakespeare, William. Hamlet.
London: Wordsworth Editions Ltd, 1992. Tolstoy, Leo. Tolstoy on Shakespeare: A Critical Essay on Shakespeare, trans.
V. Tchetkoff and I. F. M. New York: Funk ; Wagnalls, 1906.