Summary and Analysis
Act III: Scene 4
At Belmont, following the departure of Bassanio, Lorenzo commends Portia for her perfect understanding of the friendship between her husband and Antonio. Portia says that she feels that if Antonio is worthy of Bassanio's friendship, he is well worth rescuing from "hellish cruelty" at any cost. Leaving the management of her affairs to Lorenzo, she announces that she and Nerissa will go to "a monastery two miles off" until their husbands return. She asks Lorenzo not to deny them this "imposition" and thanks him for agreeing to manage her household until she and Bassanio return. Lorenzo agrees not to interfere, and he and Jessica wish her "all heart's content" and withdraw.
Portia then sends her servant Balthasar "in speed" with a letter to her cousin, the lawyer Doctor Bellario, in Padua, with instructions to bring her "what notes and garments he doth give thee." She tells Nerissa that they will "see [their] husbands / Before they think of [them]." She then explains her plan for both of them to disguise themselves as young men and follow Bassanio and Gratiano to Venice. Moreover, Portia is so sure that her plan will work that she is willing to bet that she will act the part more convincingly — with "manly stride" and "bragging" — than Nerissa. Her plan must succeed; if Bassanio has weighty troubles, then she shares them. Their "souls do bear the equal yoke of love."
Lorenzo's praise of Portia, of her nobility and "godlike amity," is introduced here so that she can be associated with Antonio, who is termed the "bosom lover" of Bassanio. Both people are very alike, and both of them are very dear to Bassanio. Earlier in the play, it had been Antonio who exemplified the principle of selfless generosity in his treatment of Bassanio. Now Portia takes over this role. Her material generosity to Bassanio symbolizes her loving generosity to him. In contrast to this generosity of both Portia and Antonio is, of course, the character of Shylock. His love has turned inward on himself and on his possessions.
The concepts of friendship and love provided many of the central themes for many Elizabethan plays. For the Elizabethans, friendship was as precious and important a relationship as love. Shakespeare has Portia make it plain that she understands the depth of friendship between Antonio and her husband, and that she is "purchasing the semblance of my soul" in saving Antonio, who is valuable to her because of his friendship with Bassanio. In this scene, Shakespeare also prepares us for Portia's appearance in the court. Under cover of living "in prayer and contemplation," she and Nerissa plan to go to Venice, but this must be kept secret from the other characters of the play.
Again we recognize the capable and audacious woman who is combined with the romantic heroine. She and Nerissa will be "accoutered like young men." This "disguise theme" adds to the comedy, and throughout the trial scene of the play, when Antonio's life hangs in the balance, Shakespeare needs to remind the audience again that what they are watching is, finally, a comedy. We anticipate seeing how well disguised they will be and how well they pull this bit of mischief off. We have seen Portia as the romantic lover and as the wise and witty well-bred woman; now we see her as a woman of the world.