The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In The Merchant of Venice, how does Bassanio describe Portia's portrait in the lead casket?

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In act 3, scene 2, Bassanio chooses between three caskets in the hopes of picking the right casket that contains Portia's portrait. Fortunately, Bassanio is not deceived by false appearances and overlooks the gold and silver caskets. Bassanio ends up correctly picking the lead casket that holds Portia's portrait inside. Upon opening the casket, Bassanio sees Portia's portrait and is pleasantly surprised. Bassanio immediately refers to Portia's image as a "demigod" and describes the portrait as having beautiful moving eyes. Bassanio continues to elaborate on Portia's portrait by commenting on her sweet lips that resemble sugar and mentions that her hair looks like "A golden mesh t' entrap the hearts of men." Bassanio is amazed at the painter's ability to create such perfect eyes without being mesmerized by Portia's beautiful stare. Despite the portrait's beauty and accuracy, Bassanio mentions that it is a "shadow" compared to Portia's physical being.

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Bassanio describes Portia's portrait in enraptured tones, although he recognizes it as only a faint imitation of her.

After deliberating between caskets, Bassanio finally opens the one made of lead; as he lifts the lid and sees the portrait of Portia, he exclaims,

                 ...What demigod
Hath come so near creation?
(Act III, Scene 2, line 119)
Overwhelmed by his fortune and Portia's painted beauty, Bassanio describes her portrait as "near creation," meaning the portrait seems almost real, real enough that Bassanio wonders aloud if a half-divine painter created it. Portia's eyes appear to be actually moving. Her sweet breath seems to part her lips. So alive does this painting seem that Portia's beautiful golden hair is described as a "golden mesh t'entrap the hearts of men" (Act III, Scene 2, line 122). Again, Bassanio returns to looking at Portia's eyes, which are so mesmerizing that Bassanio wonders how the painter was able to portray them, as he thinks the completion of the first eye would have so enraptured the painter that he would not be able to paint the other. Indeed, it is only Bassanio's discovery of the scroll and realization that this portrait is but an imitation that break him away from his enthrallment.  
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