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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
ACT I, SCENE 2
The second scene is set in Portia's room in Belmont. She confides to her maid, Nerissa, that she is tired and unhappy with the world. Nerissa attributes this mood to Portia's having too many worldly goods. Portia explains that it is because her dead father in his will denied her the right to choose her own husband. Instead, he left in his will the instructions that Portia's husband must be chosen by lottery. Each of her suitors must choose between one of the three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Two of them have cryptic instructions, and one contains a picture of Portia. The man who finds the picture of Portia wins the right to marry her. Nerissa reassures Portia that her father probably did the right thing by leaving such instructions.
The two discuss the latest arrivals for Portia's hand. Portia is unimpressed by all her suitors. She jeers at the horse-loving and gloomy Count Palantine, the Prince of Naples. She mocks the unmanly Monsieur Le Bon of France. Nor does she spare the silent Falcon Bridge of England or the drunken Duke of Saxon. All these men have lost hopes of winning Portia. They have decided to return home without guessing. Nerissa mentions a Venetian who has visited when Portia's father was alive. Portia remembers him with favor and agrees that he is worthy of praise. They are interrupted by the news of the arrival of the Prince of Morocco. Portia hopes that this Prince will not be successful with the caskets.
Belmont, Portia's home, is a privileged and idealized world. It is a place where life seems charmed with a minimum of unpleasant elements. Beauty, fun, and romantic episodes are found in this setting. In spite of it all, Portia complains about weariness to Nerissa, her maid, who says that it is due to having too much wealth, which can be as bad as having no wealth. The suggestion is that Portia has been too self-indulgent. Portia agrees, but takes refuge in the acknowledged saying that it is easier to advise than to live by example. Her lack of any active interest in the routine of her life shows the power of her emotion over reason. She follows the dictates of her heart.
The terms of her father's will prevent Portia from choosing her own husband. Her virtue ensures that she will remain true to her dead father's wishes even though she is confident enough to choose her own mate. Portia explains how her father had devised a test involving three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Whoever chooses the right casket will win Portia's hand in marriage. Nerissa is confident of the wisdom of the father's will and says that "holy men at their death have good inspirations." The will also states that those who choose incorrectly must promise to never woo another woman. The suitors who are currently wooing Portia decide that they will not take a risk and leave Belmont.
Portia casts off her weariness and engages Nerissa in witty conversation. She proves she is not a passive object of desire. She shows a mental agility and a cutting sense of humor. As Nerissa mentions the name of each of her new batch of suitors, Portia describes them mockingly. She says that she knows "it is a sin to be a mocker," but she cannot resist. Each of Portia's suitors fits into the English stereotype of various nationalities. She says that Count Palantine "doth nothing but frown," and "I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth." "The Frenchman is flighty; the Englishman speaks neither Italian nor any other language but English, and dresses badly; the Scot is a miser who will not even repay a "box of the ear"; while the German is too fond of drink, and she finds him "very vilely in the morning when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk." To describe her suitors, Portia uses puns and witty descriptions. Nerissa reminds Portia of her meeting with the young and handsome Bassanio, who has visited Belmont while her father was alive. They both admired him as "a scholar and a soldier. . .worthy of praise." Their conversation is interrupted by a messenger who announces the arrival of another suitor, the Prince of Morocco.