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Reimagining Portia: Exploring gender, law, and ethics in ‘Balthazar’ — a play of ideas

Playwright Debora Threedy discusses her Plan-B Theatre Company play

by Debora Threedy

I recall distinctly the moment the idea for what would become my play, BALTHAZAR, occurred to me. I was a law professor at the time. I was re-reading Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE as research for a “law and literature” project focusing on Portia. As I read the climactic courtroom scene, this thought popped into my head: “When Portia goes to court, it’s not the first time she has appeared in public as a man.” 

BALTHAZAR began as an exploration of why and how she would do that.

Of course, I needed a foil for Portia. I chose Bellario, her cousin. Although he is mentioned, he never appears in THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. Portia sends for him to help her prepare for court and to borrow his robes. Why would he, a respected lawyer, be willing to help Portia deceive the court by breaking gender norms and the law itself: a woman dressing as a man was considered witchcraft and punishable by death. So I began to wonder: what if Bellario was also an outsider in terms of gender norms? What if he was gay?

In the 19th century, as women began advocating for greater legal rights and a more visible presence in public affairs, Portia was often held up as a hero. During the second wave of feminism in the latter half of the 20th century, the focus altered slightly: while still held up as a role model for women in law, more attention was paid to the price Portia had to pay in order to participate in the law: she had to hide her gender and adopt the “role” of a man. This masking of her gender resonated with women who were entering the legal profession in record numbers but felt pressure to comply with male norms in how they dressed, comported themselves, and lived their lives. And now, in the 21st century, we wonder if she might not be a positive role model after all, but instead embodies all that is wrong with the legal profession: deception, manipulation, and hyper-technicality.

When I was in law school in Chicago in the 1970s, women lawyers referred to themselves as Portias.

Portia resonated with women lawyers when women were first entering law schools in more than token numbers because she had to disguise herself as a man in order to enter the courtroom. Many young women lawyers felt that way; I know I did. There was a dress code: you wore a tailored suit, with a jacket, a vest, a shirt with a (floppy) tie, and a skirt instead of trousers (trousers, ironically enough, were verboten – in Chicago, at that time a woman lawyer was thrown out of a courtroom for daring to show up in a tailored pantsuit). And, of course, there were those who wondered (including at times ourselves) if women who wanted to be lawyers were somehow less than real women. Portia has very practical reasons for wanting to appear as a man, but she wonders what it is about herself that makes that disguise so attractive to her.

When Portia goes to court as Balthazar, she is doubly masked. Yes, her gender is concealed, but she also appears as an impartial expert witness called in to help the Duke of Venice decide the case of Shylock v. Antonio. Yet, she is anything but impartial. Her husband Bassanio is Antonio’s best friend and lover. It is because of him that Antonio is in the fix he is. Throughout the course of my play BALTHAZAR, she is surprised to discover that she is unabashedly Team Antonio & Bassanio, determined to defeat Shylock. The mask of impartiality she wears in the courtroom scene complicates the picture of Portia as the play’s heroine. From the perspective of legal ethics, masking her self-interest in the outcome of the litigation is deeply problematic.

At the beginning of the process of writing BALTHAZAR some ten years ago, I identified with Portia’s masking of her gender. I am now trying to understand a Portia who struggles with the ethics of what she’s done by manipulating the law to save Antonio’s life, a Portia around whom Antonio, Bassanio, and Bellario can be their true selves, a Portia who is equally at home as Portia and Balthazar.

Today in 2024, we are experiencing an upsurge in homophobia. In particular, anti-trans and anti-drag legislation is sweeping state legislatures, including Utah’s. In part, this is pushback against recent strides in the recognition of the rights of sexual and gender minorities. It’s an attempt to re-assert the idea that gender and sexual attraction are binaries, masculine and feminine, and male and female, and that any deviation from this is, in fact, deviant. BALTHAZAR, conversely, posits that gender is a continuum, that it can be fluid, that it is non-binary. Portia is a woman who embraces her maleness, who is most fully herself when the two co-exist.

I have been asked whether Portia’s desire to be like a man is simply a rebellion against the gender constraints placed upon women by Renaissance society. My reply? The answer is unknowable — perhaps irrelevant — because women have always been, and even now continue to be, constrained by their gender. Our world is still based upon a gender hierarchy; when women still earn less than men, even after accounting for all other variables besides gender, male is still the privileged gender. When I was a child in the middle of the last century, I often created imaginary worlds, and in these worlds, I was invariably male. I have thought about that a lot, and I still can’t say with certainty whether that was because I was well aware that men had a lot more options than women or whether it reflected a fundamental ambivalence about my assigned gender.

This play joins other plays that have re-imagined Shakespearian characters and stories for our times. Plays like Paula Vogel’s “Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief” and James Ijames’ “Fat Ham,” the 2023 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Plays that are “in conversation with” the canon, plays that call into question the social assumptions underlying canonical stories. This is perhaps a kind of “fan fiction” which both expands, and sometimes subverts, the original and, at the same time, keeps it relevant.

BALTHAZAR, more than any other play I’ve written, is a play of ideas, and it is a play informed by my own journey as a woman in law, by my evolution as a scholar of women and the law, and by my own recognition of the importance to me of both my feminine and masculine sides.

Playwright Debora Threedy taught law at the University of Utah for 30 years and has previously premiered six plays at Plan-B Theatre. Her latest, BALTHAZAR, receives its world premiere at Plan-B February 15–March 3, 2024. Please click here for details and tickets.

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