What is a character sketch of Portia in act 1 of The Merchant of Venice?

In the beginning of the play, Shakespeare indicates that Portia is a very beautiful, graceful, and rather intelligent woman who, despite her wealth and stature, always remembers to be kind, generous, and humble.

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Before the audience meets Portia in scene two, Bassanio petitions Antonio to fund his trip to Belmont in hopes of winning her hand in marriage and describes Portia as a beautiful, virtuous woman, who has "sunny locks" and is beyond "fair." Bassanio's description highlights Portia's attractive appearance and pure soul, which explains why many suitors travel far distances for a chance to marry her. In scene three, Portia is portrayed as a hopeless romantic, who is depressed by her lack of personal agency and worthy suitors. Portia laments about the previous suitors to Nerissa and displays her intelligence and perspective by wittily responding to Nerissa's aphorisms. Portia's willingness to follow her deceased father's "game" also demonstrates her loyal, morally upright nature. Although Portia desires to choose a husband on her own, she obediently adheres to her father's will, which underscores her virtue and honor.
When Nerissa lists the previous suitors, Portia enumerates her particular dislikes of each and makes several sarcastic remarks, which reveals her humor and charisma. Despite Portia's negative opinion of the suitors, she becomes excited and hopeful when Nerissa mentions Bassanio's name. Portia's aggravation largely stems from her desire to exercise her independence and take control of her future. As the play progresses, Bassanio travels to Belmont, surprises Portia with his arrival, and chooses the correct casket to marry her. After Bassanio receives the tragic news of Antonio's fate, Portia intervenes and saves his life by impersonating a young lawyer. Overall, Portia is portrayed as an attractive, virtuous heiress, who is frustrated by her current situation and desires independence.
Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on August 17, 2020
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The Merchant of Venice is a sixteenth-century comedy written by famed English playwright and poet William Shakespeare. The play tells the story of Antonio, an antisemitic merchant from Venice, who decides to take a loan from a Jewish moneylender named Shylock to help his close friend Bassanio court the rich heiress Portia.

In act I, we learn that the main female protagonist of the story is Portia—a woman of great beauty and sharp intellect. As the "ideal woman," Portia has a number of suitors who want her hand in marriage; however, she is determined not to choose her husband on her own, because she decides to honor her late father’s wishes, showing the audience that she is loyal, devout and compassionate. In his will, her father proposed an interesting "game"—he presents three caskets made of gold, silver and lead; whoever chooses the casket containing Portia’s portrait can have the honor of becoming her husband. Whenever a suitor chooses wrongly, Portia is ecstatic, as she has fallen in love with Bassanio and wishes to marry him; however, she refuses to help him choose the right casket and save them both the trouble. She decides to gamble with her own happiness to respect her father’s will, which shows that she is also honorable and trustworthy.

Portia is a romantic at heart, and her quick wit, brilliant sense of humor, and wisdom, as well as her impeccable logic, pragmatic attitude, and occasional stubbornness are unmatched. She proves this when she dresses up as a man and convinces the court that she is, in fact, a competent and quite persuasive "lawyer" and thus manages to save Antonio’s life. In the end, Bassanio chooses the right casket and only then does she accept to marry the man she loves.

Many critics agree that Portia is one of the most interesting Shakespearean heroines and some even argue that her character was actually based on Queen Elizabeth I.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on August 17, 2020
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A character sketch is a short written description of a person's qualities. Such a description will, therefore, include details of the person's personality as well as information about his or her physical attributes.

We learn much about Portia in act one. When Bassanio describes her to Antonio in scene one, we learn that she is a wealthy heiress, "richly left," that she is beautiful ("she is fair, and, fairer than that word"), and that she possesses many other amazingly benevolent qualities (she is "Of wondrous virtues").

In Bassanio's contention, then, Portia would be an excellent bride. This fact is proven when he speaks about how men of stature, wealth, and prestige have come from far and wide to woo her, as he says, "the four winds blow in from every coast / Renowned suitors."

It is also evident that Portia is blond and that her beauty has driven many on a quest to win her affections. Bassanio states that "her sunny locks / Hang on her temples like a golden fleece."

Bassanio alludes to Jason, an ancient Greek mythological hero who went on a quest for the golden fleece, when he mentions how determined Portia's suitors are to obtain her love.

Portia also possesses mature self-knowledge. When she speaks to her handmaiden, Nerissa, she tells her that she believes herself to be better at teaching than she is at following her own advice. This suggests that she is stubborn. We learn, however, that in spite of her concern about the unfair demands of her father's will, she respects his wishes and will follow them. This means that she is loyal and dutiful.

Portia is also fastidious and seeks only the best for herself. She has, thus far, carefully scrutinized her suitors and seems displeased with all of them. None of them have met her high standards, and she wishes that all of them would just leave. There is also a hint of dishonesty when she suggests that the Duke of Saxony's nephew could be misled into choosing the wrong casket by placing a glass of wine "on the contrary casket."

Portia also displays prejudice when she informs Nerissa that if one of her suitors "have the condition of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me." This suggests that she would rather have such a person listen to her confess than become his wife.

Portia is apparently not perfect, but despite her shortcomings, she would be, in the eyes of her admirers, an ideal partner.

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