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In Act 1 scene 2 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, please explain the...

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smithsaab | Student, Grade 10 | eNoter

Posted August 2, 2013 at 4:42 PM via web

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In Act 1 scene 2 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, please explain the following speech by Portia:

"If he have the condition of a saint and the
complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me
than wive me."

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 2, 2013 at 8:16 PM (Answer #1)

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In William Shakepeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia is forced to follow her father's posthumous plan to find a suitable husband. Her father left three boxes (one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead) with inscriptions as a kind of riddle for all of Portia's suitors. The one who chooses the box with Portia's picture in it wins her hand; all those who choose the wrong box must agree never to marry. 

Portia has been beset with suitors. She has just happily dismissed four suitors, and when she speaks the lines you mention she is about to meet a fifth suitor, the Prince of Morocco--and she is not happy about it. She says this to her lady-in-waiting and confidante, Nerissa:

If 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.

(to SERVANT) Sirrah, go before.

Whiles we shut the gates upon one wooer

Another knocks at the door.

Portia wishes that she could greet this new suitor with as much happiness as she feels at saying good-bye to the other four suitors; if she could feel that, she would be glad to see him. If, however, he has a kind and generous disposition with a pure heart (is "saintly") but is dark-skinned (has "the complexion of a devil") she would rather the suitor hear her confession than marry her. 

This may not be a very admirable admission for Portia to make, but she is thoroughly disgruntled, even disgusted, at having to participate in this method of husband-finding and at all the suitors who are hoping to marry her for her money. 

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