The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare
Start Free Trial

List the qualities that Portia feels a husband should have in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Act I, scene ii, Portia and Nerissa discuss the suitors who have come to take their chances to win Portia's hand in marriage. Since Portia cannot choose a husband for herself, for each must try his hand at choosing the correct box after deciphering a riddle, she has Nerissa...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

In Act I, scene ii, Portia and Nerissa discuss the suitors who have come to take their chances to win Portia's hand in marriage. Since Portia cannot choose a husband for herself, for each must try his hand at choosing the correct box after deciphering a riddle, she has Nerissa remind her of the men and she will tell her the qualities that are good from each of them. Unfortunately, Portia cannot find any good qualities in any suitor who is prepared to take his chance with the caskets; thus, we can only learn what Portia believes are good qualities for a husband through deductive reasoning.

First, Nerissa names a Neapolitan prince. From him we learn that all he talks about is his horse and brags how he can shoe it himself. Then there's County Palatine who never smiles and seems depressed all of the time. From Portia's reaction to these two men, we learn that she prefers a man who is happy, smiles, does not brag, and can talk about more than just his horse.

Next, Nerissa names a French lord, a baron from England, and a Scottish lord. Portia says that the Frenchman is worse than the two previous men because he brags about himself and "he would fence with his own shadow" (I.ii.52). Then, the Englishman is fine to look at, but they don't speak the same language, so they can't understand each other. In addition, the Englishman has no fashion sense which embarrasses her. The Scottish lord, then, is nice, but he's always borrowing from the French to pay the English and this does not satisfy her. As a result, from these men we see that Portia needs a man whom she can understand and have conversations with, someone who can dress himself appropriately and fashionably, and he needs to be able to stand his own ground without needing help from anyone else.

Finally, there is a German, the Duke of Saxony's nephew, who is vile when he is sober and vile when he is drunk. She says that he is "little better than a beast" (I.ii.76). Hence, Portia needs someone who isn't a drunk, and again, someone who is polite, understands the need for manners, and can hold an intellectual conversation and is also attractive. Ironically enough, Nerissa mentions Bassanio, who isn't an official suitor, but probably the epitome of what Portia is looking for, as follows:

"a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier, that came hither in company of the marquis of Montferrat. . . He of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon was the best deserving a fair lady" (I.ii.95-96, 98-99).

Portia agrees with Nerissa about Bassanio and remembers him well. This mentioning of Bassanio is a foreshadowing of his eventual arrival as it secures his place in Portia's mind as well as that of the audience. Bassanio is the one who has all of the qualities Portia seeks, but he still must decipher the riddles and choose the correct casket for her hand in marriage.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team