How is Portia characterized in Act One, scene 2, of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice?

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

[eNotes editors are only permitted to answer one question per posting. If you have another question, please submit it separately.]

In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the reader gets a sense of Portia's character in Act One, scene two.

Portia seems to be conflicted about doing good things for others. She has a discussion with Nerissa about money and happiness. (She has inherited her father's wealth, as well as his strange manner of choosing a partner for his daughter, even after his death.)

Portia admits that it's easy to preach being kind and helpful to others, but very rare to be the one person willing and able to actually put words into actions. The thrust of this part of her conversation seems to be that it is difficult to do what you know is right: but doesn't see this as an excuse.

The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot tempter leaps o'er a cold decree.

(In other words, "Cold" rules are all well and good unless you have a "hot" temper.)

In listening to what Portia has to say, we find she is intelligent—not a simpering young woman concerned with clothes and jewels as other ladies her age might be.

The conversation turns toward Portia's suitors. Portia has a reason that she would prefer not to marry each one Nerissa mentions, but her reasoning is sound. One man is a drunk, another talks of nothing but of horses, and another she cannot speak to at all because he speaks only English, which she speaks poorly. One famous line comes from these conversation regarding the drunk, the duke of Saxony's nephew:

When he is best he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst he is little better than a beast.

Overall, I believe the reader learns that Portia is a woman of substance, but not just financial substance: she is concerned about helping others, and being committed to do the "right" thing. She wants to marry someone that she has something in common with, rather than passing her days with a stranger or a drunk. She is a bright, articulate woman, hoping for a bright future.

Read the study guide:
The Merchant of Venice

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question