In her first appearance in act 1, scene 2, of The Merchant of Venice, Portia's beauty and evident intellect are of little avail against encroaching melancholy. An unmarried young woman of noble birth, her choice of husband has been circumscribed by the terms of her late father's will: it stipulates that she must marry the man who chooses the correct one of three caskets, each bearing a cryptic question.
Anxious that she'll never be married under such conditions, she bemoans such a fate to her waiting-maid Nerissa after mocking a series of highly unsuitable suitors who have already refused the casket lottery:
If I live to as old as Sibylla, I will die as
chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner
of my father's will. (1.2.106–108)
Nerissa, who has previously advised her mistress to have faith in the wisdom of her father's test, reminds Portia of a young Venetian soldier who:
...of all the men that ever my
foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a
fair lady. (1.2.118–120)
Portia, indeed, has a favorable memory of this man and recalls his name: Bassanio. The audience knows, from act 1, scene 1, that Bassanio is in love with Portia and has borrowed 3,000 ducats from his friend Antonio to compete with what he knows are numerous "Renowned suitors" for her hand in marriage. So, although Portia knows nothing of his love, the audience is in a state of suspense over the fate of Bassanio's marital quest: will he submit to the casket lottery, and if so, will he pass the test?