The Merchant of Venice Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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What is a character sketch of the six suitors in The Merchant of Venice?

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In fact, Portia has nine suitors for her hand in marriage in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

In act 1, scene 2, Portia describes six of the suitors to Nerissa, Portia's "waiting woman."

NERISSA. But what warmth is there in
your affection towards any of these princely suitors that
are already come?

PORTIA. I pray thee, over-name them; and as thou namest
them I will describe them; and according to my description
level at my affection. (1.2.30-35)

These six suitors don't appear in the play, but Portia paints a very clear picture of each of them.

Portia describes the Neapolitan prince as a man who "doth nothing but talk of his horse" and that "he can shoe him himself" (1.2.37-38).

The Palatine count "doth nothing but frown...being so full of unmannerly sadness" (1.2.41- 45).

The French lord, Monsieur Le Bon? "God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man" (1.2.50).

As for Falconbridge, the English baron, Portia finds it impossible to converse with him in any of the languages that she knows. He also dresses poorly, in mismatched clothes from Italy, France, and Germany. (1.2.61-67)

The Scottish lord appears to lack courage, runs from a fight while threatening retaliation, and borrows money that he doesn't repay. (1.2.70-73)

Portia's opinion of the Duke of Saxony's nephew is that he behaves "Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober; and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk" (1.2. 76-77). At his best, she says, "he is a little worse than a man," and at his worst "he is little better than a beast" (1.2.78-79).

Nerissa also mentions Bassanio, not as a suitor, but as a visitor to Portia's home when Portia's father was still alive.

NERISSA. Do you not remember, lady, in your father's time, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier that came hither in
company of the Marquis of Montferrat?

PORTIA. Yes, yes, it was Bassanio; as I think, so was he
called.

NERISSA. True, madam; he, of all the men that ever my foolish
eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady.

PORTIA. I remember him well; and I remember him worthy
of thy praise. (1.2.100-108)

The three suitors who actually appear in the play are The Prince of Morocco, the Prince of Arragon, and, finally, Bassanio—Portia's own choice for a husband.

The Prince of Morocco is flamboyant, overbearing, arrogant, incessantly boastful of himself in the most pompous and exaggerated terms, and he dresses all in white. Portia is pleased that he chooses the wrong casket, and she's understatedly happy to see him go.

PORTIA. A gentle riddance. (2.7.79)

The Prince of Arragon arrives—seemingly unannounced, if not altogether unexpectedly—to the sound of a flourish of cornets.

He doesn't stay long. He believes that the silver casket best represents his highly inflated sense of his self-worth.

ARRAGON. ...Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves.
I will assume desert:—Give me a key for this,
And instantly unlock my fortunes here. (1.9.59-51)

The Prince of Arragon makes the wrong choice, and after reading the message in the casket, leaves Portia's home without another word.

Bassanio is the last of Portia's suitors, but the first in her heart. That Portia believes him to be a suitable husband, and that he's by far the most suitable of all her suitors, is all the character reference we need.

As a side note...towards the end of act 1, scene 2, one of Portia's servants seems to reference four more suitors.

MESSENGER. The four strangers seek for you, madam, to take their leave... (1.2.110-111)

Portia and Nerissa have been talking about six suitors, not four, and they haven't been talking about them as "strangers," even if they don't refer to them by name.

The "four strangers," if they're actually four additional suitors, apparently chose to remove themselves from contention as suitors for the same reason that the other six suitors did—they rejected the stringent terms that Portia's father imposed on anyone who wishes to choose from the three caskets in the hope of winning Portia as their wife.

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Portia's disgruntlement with being compelled to select a suitor from the young men that her late father has arranged to come to Belmont produces some uproarious effects. Shakespeare uses his plot as an opportunity to satirize the noblemen of England and its neighboring countries of France, Scotland, and Germany. Portia's description of six of her suitors in act 1, scene 2 provides comic relief for the tragicomedy The Merchant of Venice.

The first six suitors come to Belmont, and after they depart, Portia speaks with Nerissa about them.

1. The Neapolitan Prince: Portia, who calls him a "colt" [meaning a stallion] describes this man as obsessed with his horse and its sterling qualities. He boasts of his skills in shoeing his horse himself. Drolly, Portia says that she suspects that the prince's mother must have "played wrong [had an affair] with a [black]smith" (1.2.42), implying that she was a mare.

2. The Count Palatine: Portia describes this man of royalty as perpetually frowning. His gloomy nature permits him no joy. For instance, "[H]e hears merry tales and smiles not." (1.2.46) Portia adds that if she marries such a melancholy man, it will be like living with "the weeping philosopher"; that is, another Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, who perceived all things as one. 

Heraclitus held extreme views that led to logical incoherence. For he held that (1) everything is constantly changing and (2) opposite things are identical, so that (3) everything is and is not at the same time. [http://www.iep.utm.edu/heraclit]

3. Monsieur Le Bon: Portia cannot identify any real personality in this man: " . . . he is every man in no man."

4. Falconbridge: Portia says that this young baron from England speaks none of the languages that she knows. She describes the Englishman as having no real identity, either, since his manner of dress indicates nothing about him. He wears a doublet from Italy, his round hose [a lower garment that functions both as stockings and breeches] from France, and his "bonnet" from Germany. Portia adds that his behavior also comes from everywhere.

5. The Scottish lord: With Portia's description, Shakespeare satirizes the Scots. Portia tells Nerissa that when the Scotsman was boxed on the ear by the Englishman, he promised to pay the Englishman back with the aid of the Frenchman. (This is a sarcastic remark directed toward the French who failed on several occasions to provide promised assistance to the Scots against the English.)

6. The young German, a nephew of the Duke of Saxony: Portia indicates the German's inclination for drinking as she finds him to be inebriated all day long. She says that she hopes to find a way to live without him.

After Nerissa informs her that all six noblemen have left because they do not wish to abide by the command of her father that if they make the wrong choice of casket, Portia concludes with obvious relief and irony,  

I am glad this parcel of wooers are so reasonable, for there is not one among them but I dote on his very absence. And I pray God grant them a fair departure. (1.2.97-99)

Further Reading:

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In Act 1, Scene 2 of The Merchant of Venice, Portia gives her assessment of each of six suitors who have come to woo her.  Each suitor comes from a different country.  (These six do NOT include the suitors whom we meet later: the Prince of Morocco in Act 2, Scenes 1 and 7; the Prince of Arragon in Act 2, Scene 9; and Bassanio in Act 3, Scene 2.)

This is a short passage (lines 34 - 103), and wickedly funny.  It shows Portia's wit, her ability to judge character, and also her humility, for even as she jokes about these suitors' shortcomings, she admits, "I know it is a sin to be a mocker."  Yet she has too much foresight and self-worth to marry any of them.

The passage is worth reading for the humor alone.  Here is a list of the six suitors and of Portia's problem with each of them.

  • The Neapolitan prince.  He only talks about his horse.  Portia says, "I am much afeared ... his mother played false with a smith."  (!) 
  • The County Palantine.  He is gloomy, always frowning.
  • Monsieur Le Bon.  He is flighty, with no consistent character.  "If I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands."
  • Falconbridge, the young baron of England.  He is good-looking, but he speaks no Latin, French, or Italian, and Portia speaks no English.  Also, he dresses oddly.
  • The Scottish lord. Immediately fought with the Englishman.
  • The young German, the Duke of Saxony's nephew.  He is drunk every afternoon, and vilely rude even when not drunk.

Portia wraps up her assessment with the hilarious and quotable line,

... there is not one among them but I dote on his very absence; and I pray God grant them a fair departure.

 

 

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