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The Merchant of Venice


ACT I SCENE IIBelmont. A room in PORTIA’S house.
PORTIABy my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of
this great world.
NERISSAYou would be, sweet madam, if your miseries were in
the same abundance as your good fortunes are: and
yet, for aught I see, they are as sick that surfeit
with too much as they that starve with nothing. It
is no mean happiness therefore, to be seated in the
mean: superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but
competency lives longer.10
PORTIAGood sentences and well pronounced.
NERISSAThey would be better, if well followed.
PORTIAIf to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s
cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o’er a cold decree: such a hare is madness the20
youth, to skip o’er the meshes of good counsel the
cripple. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to
choose me a husband. O me, the word ‘choose!’ I may
neither choose whom I would nor refuse whom I
dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curbed
by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard,
Nerissa, that I cannot choose one nor refuse none?
NERISSAYour father was ever virtuous; and holy men at their30
death have good inspirations: therefore the lottery,
that he hath devised in these three chests of gold,
silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning
chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any
rightly but one who shall rightly love. But what
warmth is there in your affection towards any of
these princely suitors that are already come?
PORTIAI pray thee, over-name them; and as thou namest
them, I will describe them; and, according to my40
description, level at my affection.
NERISSAFirst, there is the Neapolitan prince.
PORTIAAy, that’s a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but
talk of his horse; and he makes it a great
appropriation to his own good parts, that he can
shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his
mother played false with a smith.
NERISSAThen there is the County Palatine.
PORTIAHe doth nothing but frown, as who should say ‘If you50
will not have me, choose:’ he hears merry tales and
smiles not: I fear he will prove the weeping
philosopher when he grows old, being so full of
unmannerly sadness in his youth. I had rather be
married to a death’s-head with a bone in his mouth

than to either of these. God defend me from these
NERISSAHow say you by the French lord, Monsieur Le Bon?
PORTIAGod made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.
In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker: but,60
he! why, he hath a horse better than the
Neapolitan’s, a better bad habit of frowning than
the Count Palatine; he is every man in no man; if a
throstle sing, he falls straight a capering: he will
fence with his own shadow: if I should marry him, I
should marry twenty husbands. If he would despise me
I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness, I
shall never requite him.70
NERISSAWhat say you, then, to Falconbridge, the young baron
of England?
PORTIAYou know I say nothing to him, for he understands
not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French,
nor Italian, and you will come into the court and
swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English.
He is a proper man’s picture, but, alas, who can
converse with a dumb-show? How oddly he is suited!
I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round
hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his80
behavior every where.
NERISSAWhat think you of the Scottish lord, his neighbour?
PORTIAThat he hath a neighbourly charity in him, for he
borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman and
swore he would pay him again when he was able: I
think the Frenchman became his surety and sealed
under for another.
NERISSAHow like you the young German, the Duke of Saxony’s nephew?90
PORTIAVery vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and
most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk: when
he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and
when he is worst, he is little better than a beast:
and the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall
make shift to go without him.
NERISSAIf he should offer to choose, and choose the right
casket, you should refuse to perform your father’s
will, if you should refuse to accept him.100
PORTIATherefore, for fear of the worst, I pray thee, set a
deep glass of rhenish wine on the contrary casket,
for if the devil be within and that temptation
without, I know he will choose it. I will do any
thing, Nerissa, ere I’ll be married to a sponge.
NERISSAYou need not fear, lady, the having any of these
lords: they have acquainted me with their110
determinations; which is, indeed, to return to their
home and to trouble you with no more suit, unless
you may be won by some other sort than your father’s
imposition depending on the caskets.
PORTIAIf I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as
chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner
of my father’s will. I am glad this parcel of wooers
are so reasonable, for there is not one among them
but I dote on his very absence, and I pray God grant120
them a fair departure.
NERISSADo you not remember, lady, in your father’s time, a
Venetian, a scholar and a soldier, that came hither
in company of the Marquis of Montferrat?
PORTIAYes, yes, it was Bassanio; as I think, he was so called.
NERISSATrue, madam: he, of all the men that ever my foolish
eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady.130
PORTIAI remember him well, and I remember him worthy of
thy praise.
[Enter a Serving-man]
How now! what news?
ServantThe four strangers seek for you, madam, to take
their leave: and there is a forerunner come from a
fifth, the Prince of Morocco, who brings word the
prince his master will be here to-night.139
PORTIAIf I could bid the fifth welcome with so good a
heart as I can bid the other four farewell, I should
be glad of his approach: if he have the condition
of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had
rather he should shrive me than wive me. Come,
Nerissa. Sirrah, go before.
Whiles we shut the gates
upon one wooer, another knocks at the door.

Next: The Merchant of Venice, Act 1, Scene 3


Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 2
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.

Belmont. Most of the directions as to place and scene in the plays of Shakespeare have been added by modern editors. In the old editions the reader was left to infer both from the words of the text. Belmont is supposed to have been situated near the Brenta, a fair stream of the continent, on the banks of which were many of the palaces of the magnificoes of Venice. The highway from Venice to Padua must have run near.

In this scene we learn the conditions under which Portia can alone be won, and find her heart-whole as to any of her suitors. But Portia is not wholly fancy-free, for on Nerissa’s mention of “a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier, that came hither in company of the Marquis of Montferrat,” and “in your father’s time,” Portia remembers his name, Bassanio, and that he “was worthy of thy praise.” This touch shows Bassanio no mere adventurer, but a gentleman accredited by his station in a nobleman’s train and by the acceptance of Portia’s own father; and prepares us for what might otherwise seem that lady’s sudden and unaccountable preference for Bassanio.

7, 8. no mean happiness … in the mean. It is no happiness to be despised, therefore, to be stationed in life between the extremes of poverty and overabundant wealth. Shakespeare shared with his age a fondness for playing on words. See below, lines 26, 27, the will [wish, desire] of a living daughter curbed by the will [testament] of a dead father.

28. cannot choose one nor refuse none. In modern English, “Can neither choose one nor refuse any.” Nor is often used after not. See Macbeth, ii. 3. 69: “Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee.” For the double negative, see King John, v. 7. 112.

35. No doubt you will never be chosen, etc. Compare Portia’s words to Bassanio, below (iii. 2. 41): “If you do love me, you will find me out.” This is the reading of the first quarto of The Merchant of Venice; that of the folio is inferior.

44. a colt, a wild, headstrong youth. As the Neapolitans were notably skilled in horsemanship in Shakespeare’s day, there is a play on the word colt.

50. as who should say. Compare i. I. 93, above, and the note thereon.

51. ‘If you will not have me, choose‘ [whom you will, and regret your choice]. The sense is plainly: “Whom could you think of choosing beside such a paragon as I?”

53. the weeping philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, who flourished about 500 B.C.

58. How say you by the French lord. What say you with reference to, etc. See below, ii. 9. 26: “By the fool multitude”; and compare the phrase: “Do as you would be done by” [i.e. with reference to].

66. a caperingA is often equal to “on” before verbal nouns. Compare King Lear, v. 3. 274: “The slave that was a hanging there.”

73. Portia playfully twists Nerissa’s word, say, into a different sense.

76. a poor pennyworth in the English, little knowledge of the English tongue.

80. doublet … round hose. The doublet was the close-fitting jacket worn by men in Shakespeare’s day. The familiar figure, Punch, still wears a doublet. Round hose were trousers made very large and sometimes stuffed, or “bombasted,” as it was called, to make them stand out.

81. bonnet, commonly used for a man’s hat. See Richard II, i. 4. 31: “Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench.”

88. the Frenchman became his surety. In allusion to the assistance frequently offered by France to Scotland in her quarrels with England, before the union of the two countries under Elizabeth’s successor, King James.

89. sealed under for another [box on the ear]. The principal, or person entering into a bond, was said to “seal to” the bond; his surety, i.e. the man who agreed to pay the debt if the principal did not, was said to ” seal under.”

100. you should refuse to perform, in modern usage, “You would refuse.” Should is the past tense of shall, and has undergone the same modifications of meaning. Should is not now used with the second person to denote mere futurity, because it suggests a duty if not a compulsion. But we retain this use of should in the conditional clause, “If you should refuse,” because there can be no question of compulsion in that case. Shakespeare did not make this distinction.

109. the having. The article often precedes a verbal noun when the latter is followed by an object, as here. Compare Macbeth, i. 4, 7: “Nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it.”

113. by some other sort, by some other method or manner.

114. your father’s imposition, the condition imposed by your father.

116. Sibylla, used erroneously by Shakespeare as a proper name. There were several prophetic women known as sibyls in ancient times. Of them the Cumaean sibyl, consulted by Aeneas, was the most famous. It was this sibyl that obtained from Apollo a promise that her years should be as many as the grains of sand she was holding in her hand.

134. four strangers, six were enumerated. The plays of Shakespeare’s time were subject to constant revision, and sometimes little inadvertences, such as this, remain. There may have been but four suitors named in an earlier version of this play.

135. forerunner, footman.

140, 141. so … as. As is a contraction of all-so (alse, als, as). We still say: “As I expected so it happened.” The Elizabethans frequently used the reverse order. See Romeo and Juliet, i. 1. 140: “All so soon as.”

146, 147. It is a common device of plays of this time to end a scene with a rhyming couplet, as here. This has been supposed by some to offer a cue to the opening of a new scene, but as such rhyming tags occur elsewhere this is not certain.


How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co., 1903.