Why does Bassanio tell Portia that he is worthless in The Merchant of Venice?

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio had told Portia that he was worthless in the sense that he does not deserve her. Later, he explains that he is worth less than nothing because Antonio’s ships are wrecked, so they have lost the money he borrowed from Shylock.

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When Bassanio and Portia first meet, they are immediately taken with each other, but Portia has agreed to abide by the terms of her late father’s will, which establishes a capricious method governing the choice of her future husband. Bassanio agrees to come and take part in the contest to...

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When Bassanio and Portia first meet, they are immediately taken with each other, but Portia has agreed to abide by the terms of her late father’s will, which establishes a capricious method governing the choice of her future husband. Bassanio agrees to come and take part in the contest to guess the right chest, as only by doing so can he win the right to marry her.

In act III, scene ii, when he arrives, following the unsuccessful efforts of the prior suitors, both he and Portia are nervous because they both want him to win. After he chooses correctly and they become engaged, Gratiano and Nerissa do likewise, and they are all ecstatic.

Immediately thereafter, Bassanio learns that Antonio’s ships have been wrecked at sea. He confesses to Portia that he is ruined. Beginning on line 259, he elaborates that his earlier protestations of being worthless were true; the phrase he uses is that his wealth all in his veins. However, even to say he “rated … at nothing” seems like boasting in comparison to this new development:

When I did first impart my love to you,

I freely told you, all the wealth I had

Ran in my veins,—I was a gentleman;

And then I told you true: and yet, dear lady,

Rating myself at nothing, you shall see,

How much I was a braggart.

Bassanio elaborates that “nothing” was an exaggeration. It would have been more accurate to say he was “less than nothing.” By this he means that to get the money to travel to Belmont to see her, he had agreed with Antonio to borrow money from “his mere enemy,” meaning Shylock. Now that Antonio’s ships are wrecked at sea, there will be no way to pay off the grotesque contract for his flesh.

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