Kirilka Stavreva
Department of English

Cornell College
Mount Vernon, IA 52314

"Champions There Were None": Public Domesticity in The Merchant of Venice

In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare genders Venice, the "fair" city of the goddess of love, masculine, and sets it at a clear geographic and symbolic remove from the feminine locale of Belmont. In an attempt to account for this symbolic geography, I suggest that Belmont, that haven of public domesticity, is literally and metaphorically "a city upon a hill." Portia's household attracts and fascinates not only assorted Venetians, but also nobles from the far reaches of the Mediterranean world for it offers what the public world of war, politics, and commerce lacks -- equal chances of social advancement and an orderly process of crises management. Belmont's female citizens not only present to leading Venetians a model of participatory governance, but also manage to involve the latter in the practice of a reformed oeconomics. At the same time, the restrictions set by the play as to who may belong to this model household point to another, less utopian function of Belmont's public domesticity -- its role in the definition and protection of the borders of "proper" social subjectivity. As a judge in the strict judicial sense and in the wider sense of "rule" or "govern," Portia's role in the larger Venetian world resembles that of the Biblical Deborah in the Ephraimite hill country. Like Deborah's, Portia's home is a public domestic realm, providing nourishment and spiritual succor, but also shaping the justice system, determining the content of good citizenship, and monitoring access to it.