Act 1, scene 2, of The Merchant of Venice contains many different figures of speech that display Portia’s wit as well as her disdain for her suitors. Examples of various figures of speech include the following.
Portia does not want to marry, even if it is her late father’s wish. If it weren’t for her father’s will, she believes, “If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as chaste as Diana.”
Sibylla is a prophetess famous for her extreme old age; Apollo granted her as many years of life as there are grains in a handful of sand. Diana is the Roman goddess of virtue and chastity.
Portia describes the Neapolitan prince through an extended metaphor:
Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but talk of his horse; and he makes it a great appropriation to his own good parts, that he can shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his mother played false with a smith.
Portia compares him to a colt, a young, uncastrated male horse; he talks only about his horse and wears accessories like a horse (“he can shoe himself”), and Portia jokes that perhaps his mother had an affair with a blacksmith to result in his character.
In another metaphor, Portia compares a wild hare to youthful irrationality that jumps over and escapes the net (“meshes”) of reason:
such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple.
Finally, Portia declares to Nerissa, “I will do anything, Nerissa, ere I'll be married to a sponge.” Any suitor she has met up to this point is as dull and lifeless as a sponge.
Nerissa advises Portia, “superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.” White hairs represent an elderly person; Nerissa tells Portia that excess ages a person quickly, while sufficiency and moderation lead to a longer life.
This figure of speech contains two parts. Words, grammatical constructions, or ideas of the first part are repeated in reverse order in the second part. This balanced construction illustrates a clever opposition of closely related ideas. Portia demonstrates her wit and intelligence with a statement like the following:
I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.
She later describes Falconbridge, the young baron of England with a short chiasmus: “he understands not me, nor I him.”
Finally, she characterizes the Duke of Saxony's nephew this way:
when he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and when he is worst, he is little better than a beast ...
Portia describes the frustrating fluctuations of youthful emotions:
The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o’er a cold decree ...
While the brain is personified as a lawmaker, one’s temper is personified as a law-breaker who “leaps” over an order or decree.
Portia uses two meanings of the word will (a person’s desire versus a legal document declaring a deceased person’s wishes) when she says, “so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father.”
When rejecting the Neapolitan prince and the County Palatine, Portia exaggerates (or maybe illustrates accurately) her desire not to wed them with a hyperbolic statement:
I had rather be married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth than to either of these.
In other words, she would rather be married to a corpse than to either of them.
Another hyperbole is Portia’s characterization of Monsieur Le Bon’s multiple personalities:
if I should marry him, I should marry twenty husbands.
Portia emphasizes how awful the Duke of Saxony’s nephew is by describing him as behaving
Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk.
The repetition of v sounds creates a rough and unpleasant effect.
Nerissa uses this figure of speech (where words are repeated at the beginning of successive clauses, phrases, or sentences) to stress to Portia actions she should take with regard to the Duke of Saxony's nephew:
If he should offer to choose, and choose the right casket, you should refuse to perform your father's will, if you should refuse to accept him.