The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Portia tells her servant and friend Nerissa of her frustration and weariness at the suitors who have swarmed her home seeking to marry her. She also expresses frustration at her recently deceased father's plan to choose his daughter a husband. Even though her father is dead, Portia feels bound to follow his wishes even though it means she will not be able to choose a husband for herself. Nerissa expresses faith in Portia's father's goodness and reasoning and encourages her friend to trust that her father's plan will work out for the best. Then Nerissa asks what Portia thinks of the suitors she has met so far. Portia describes a prince from Naples who only talks about his horse, a count whose disposition is constantly sour, a French lord whose mood changes drastically minute to minute, an English baron who does not speak Portia's language (nor she his), a quarrelsome Scottish lord, and a drunken German nobleman. None of these options appeals to Portia, but she affirms her oath to follow her father's wishes and hopes the Venetian "scholar and soldier," Bassanio, will return to woo her. Then Portia and Nerissa are called away to greet a new arrival, the Prince of Morocco.

Analysis

Portia is essentially at the mercy of a man's wishes in this section, bound to follow her father's plan, as absurd as it seems to her. Her position reflects a general lack of power in a world run by men, and despite Nerissa's reassurances, she fears her father's scheme—which leaves so much to chance—may land her with a husband who speaks a different language, who is a drunkard, who is abusive, or worse. Portia's objections to her suitors also fall in line with the play's theme of prejudice and distaste for those who are different. The Neapolitan prince is Italian, but his worst flaw is that he is boring. The English baron speaks only his own language; the French lord is unreliable; the Scot picks fights; the German drinks. While Portia's objections to each of these men as a life partner are understandable, their flaws are rooted in the worst stereotypes associated with their nationalities. Portia's objections to these men are delivered entirely through her description, which means they come to the audience through her perception. Audience members do not see these characters or their behavior firsthand. It is possible she's exaggerating their faults because she wants a suitor like herself in race and nationality, which is borne out by her preference for Bassanio, despite having met him only once.

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