Until now, there has not been a performance history of The Merchant of Venice that focuses on Portia, the main character of the play. Although she has the most lines, the most stage time, and represents the nexus of the action, Portia has often been hidden in Shylock’s shadow, and this dissertation seeks to bring her into the spotlight. The Portia Project is a contribution to literary and theatrical history; its primary goal is to provide a tool for scholars and teachers. Moreover, because of Merchant's notoriously problematic nature, the play invites different perspectives. By presenting the diverse ways that actors and directors have approached the play and resolved the cruxes associated with Portia, I aim to demonstrate that there are multiple valid ways in which to interpret the text.
Chapter one explores the literary criticism of The Merchant of Venice, centering on the treatment of the play's female protagonist. The early twentieth century produced wide-ranging interpretations of Portia, and the last fifty years have seen her analyzed through the lenses of feminism, cultural materialism, psychoanalytic criticism, and queer theory. Having analyzed the literary criticism, I next concentrate on the performance history of The Merchant of Venice, with particular attention to Portia.
I then turn to those who have performed the role in a wide-range of theatrical venues. Chapter three features the input of Seana McKenna—star of the Canadian stage and a mainstay of the Stratford Festival in Ontario—who played Portia in a 1989 production. Michael Langham directed in an atmosphere of trepidation over the play’s reception and its portrayal of Shylock’s forced conversion. For chapter four I interviewed Marni Penning, a veteran of the smaller repertory companies that are sprinkled about the United States. For chapter five I talked to Edward Hall, artistic director of the all-male Propeller Theatre Company, and Kelsey Brookfield, a young black actor who played Portia for the group’s 2009 production. By dressing all of the “male” characters alike, Hall de-emphasized the differences between the Christians and the Jews, while Portia, Nerissa, and Jessica were presented not as women, but as men, who have feminized themselves to survive in their harsh environment. Lily Rabe played Portia for the 2010 production of Merchant in Central Park, opposite Al Pacino’s Shylock. The production was so successful that it moved to Broadway in October of that year, and Rabe’s intelligent portrayal won universal accolades.
The Portia Project explores the perceptions of literary critics, theatrical reviewers, actors, and directors, in order to ascertain how representations and expectations of Shakespeare’s most learned heroine have changed over the years and to rescue her from Shylock’s shadow. By combining the disciplines of literary criticism, theatre, and film, an evolving picture of Portia emerges, revealing Portia’s complexity and her centrality to The Merchant of Venice.