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A Compare and Contrast of Ophelia and Portia

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    A Compare and Contrast of Ophelia and Portia in Shakespeare’s Plays

    This paper will compare the two characters Portia in the Merchant of Venice and Ophelia of Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s plays. By understanding how these two women are similar, we can see the ideas of Shakespeare setting trends in the way they think, and how they behave in the larger scope of feminine characterization. By understanding this, the major emphasis of both characters can give a broader scope of their meaning in the text.

    In the instance of Ophelia in the play Hamlet, we have the instance of the tragic girlfriend, who cannot seem to survive the effects of Hamlet’s actions. Ophelia is a simply depicted character whose main plot functions are to be Hamlet's long-standing girlfriend and to suffer greatly and eventually die because of the corruption in Denmark. The daughter of Polonius and brother of Laertes, she is a soft-spoken and beautiful female. She is also an obedient and tender-hearted young lady who willingly obeys her father even when it means being separated from Hamlet, her true love. Ophelia is “characterized by simplicity, innocence, faithfulness, honesty, and a total lack of deceit.” (Bloom p.133) Her purity is symbolized by flowers, especially by the violets that are so much a part of her being. Although Portia, in the Merchant of Venice resembles these traits, she is not as tragic, but the lonesome figure of a woman can be seen here in comparison.

    Portia is in some ways a fairy-tale heroine. She lives in Belmont, a land of music, luxury, and perpetual happiness. Her father is dead, and we never hear about or meet any members of her own family. She is totally without problems of her own. All she lacks is a husband, and she doesn't even have to do anything about finding one. Under the terms of her father's will, the right suitor will be selected without any effort on her part. Everyone admires Portia, and from what we see of her, their admiration is entirely justified. Portia is not only beautiful and fabulously rich, she is wise and witty, loyal and good. It is easier to reconcile these two sides of Portia's character if you remember the Elizabethan view that true fulfillment and happiness can come only from accepting one's proper place in society. In the case of Antnoni in the play we can see one of Antonio's friends is Bassanio. Bassanio has a problem; he still owes Antonio a great deal of money and wants to pay it back to his friend. He has a plan. If Antonio lends him still more money, he will pursue the very beautiful and wealthy Lady Portia whose “sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;” (Merchant of Venice 1.1.170). This shows the power of her beauty, and how this is one way that she resembles Ophelia in the exterior view of both women.

    Nowadays, we tend to admire individualists. “Shakespeare's contemporaries were more likely to regard them as troublemakers.” (Wheeler p.34) Portia is independent, but she is not a rebel. Like Shylock, she is a strong character; unlike him, she is not an outsider. She uses her talent in the service of her husband and friends, and accepts her lot in life- that of the subordinate wife- graciously. The resemblance of both characters is their sense of being ‘outside’, and not being able to have men in their lives for some reason. This is the basic way that they resemble each other, even though Portia is far stronger than Ophelia in her strength of character. But in the instance of Ophelia we do have some strength in character that can be contrary to many beliefs to the contrary. Ophelia states:

    “Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,

    Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

    Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,

    Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

    And recks not his own rede.” (Hamlet 1.3.51)

    In this case we see the comparison to the feisty Portia, who can be seen as having a stronger character, and dominate the Ophelia character in most cases.

    In conclusion, at times during the play, Portia shows herself to be a very independent, even liberated, young woman. She complains about the terms of her father's will, and her comments on her various suitors leave no doubt that she is perfectly capable of choosing a husband for herself. When Antonio is in trouble, Portia conceives and carries out a rescue plan without even bothering to let her husband in on it. She passes herself off as a wise and learned lawyer with no trouble at all. We never seriously doubt that Portia will save Antonio. The suspense lies in seeing just how cleverly she will manage it. In this way Ophelia is a complete victim of the trouble in her life, and the contrast of character is this issue, which lies in the duality of their behaviors, but in essence, we have similar characters in their stance outside of the characters that play a central part in the plays. Looking for comparison essay? Click here and get your best essay paper from experts.


    • Bloom, Harold, Hamlet (Modern Critical Interpretations), Chelsea House Publishers / January 1992.
    • Shakespeare, William, Hamlet, Mass Market Paperback / Pocket Books / May 1976.
    • Shakespeare, William, Merchant of Venice, Simon & Schuster Trade / May 1976.
    • Wheeler, Thomas, Merchant of Venice: Critical Essays, Garland Publishing, Incorporated / January 1991.

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