The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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What qualities should a husband have according to Portia in The Merchant of Venice?

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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.

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In the play The Merchant of Venice, what sorts of traits would Portia be looking for in a husband?

We can only judge what sort of traits Portia looks for through a careful reading of what she divulges to her confidante and lady in waiting, Nerissa, as they discuss the wealthy heiress's various suitors. 

It is easy to gauge that, firstly, she would prefer a husband who is not obsessed with some or other pastime or indulgence. One can assume that she would prefer to be her partner's only interest. In Act 1, scene 2 (lines 44 - 48), she mocks the Neapolitan prince's obsession with his horse when Nerissa mentions him - a clear indication of her preference:

... 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.

Secondly, she makes it quite obvious that she prefers a husband who has a pleasant, cheerful disposition. When Nerissa mentions the County Palatine, Portia expresses her disdain for his sombre demeanour in lines 50 to 55:

He doth nothing but frown, as who should say 'If you
will not have me, choose:' he hears merry tales and
smiles not: I fear he will prove the weeping
philosopher when he grows old, being so full of
unmannerly sadness in his youth. I had rather be
married to a death's-head with a bone in his mouth
than to either of these.

Furthermore, Portia's husband should be a man who is assured of his own identity. She wants a man who knows himself and what he wants. Nerissa's reference to the French lord, Monsieur le Bon makes it evident that she does not want a man who does not display these traits. She states, in lines 59 to 70:

God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.
In truth, I know it is a sin to be a mocker: but,
he! why, he hath a horse better than the
Neapolitan's, a better bad habit of frowning than
the Count Palatine; he is every man in no man; if a
throstle sing, he falls straight a capering: he will
fence with his own shadow: if I should marry him, I
should marry twenty husbands. If he would despise me
I would forgive him, for if he love me to madness, I
shall never requite him. 

Added to that, Portia wants a partner with whom she can communicate. He should speak her language. She obviously also prefers a man who is good-looking. Furthermore, her beloved should have dress-sense. All this is revealed when she speaks about the young baron Falconbridge from England in lines 73 - 81:

You know I say nothing to him, for he understands
not me, nor I him: he hath neither Latin, French,
nor Italian, and you will come into the court and
swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English.
He is a proper man's picture, but, alas, who can
converse with a dumb-show? How oddly he is suited!
I think he bought his doublet in Italy, his round
hose in France, his bonnet in Germany and his
behavior every where.

In her response, to Nerissa's mention of the Scottish lord, Portia's sarcasm about his habit of borrowing money, is pertinent. She clearly does not want a husband who goes around creating debt. Ironically, this is exactly what her eventual husband, Bassanio, had been doing quite regularly. She mentions in lines 85 to 89:

That he hath a neighbourly charity in him, for he
borrowed a box of the ear of the Englishman and
swore he would pay him again when he was able: I
think the Frenchman became his surety and sealed
under for another.

Portia will definitely not consider a drunk. She wants a man who remains sober and does not imbibe alcohol. Her rejection of Nerissa's suggestion of the young German, nephew to the Duke of Saxony, in lines 91 to 97, makes her sentiment pertinently obvious:

Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and
most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk: when
he is best, he is a little worse than a man, and
when he is worst, he is little better than a beast:
and the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall
make shift to go without him.

When Nerissa refers to Bassanio, it is most evident that Portia wishes her husband to be a Venetian, learned and soldierly, for she agrees with Nerissa that such a man 'was the best deserving a fair lady.' Later, when she is informed about the arrival of the prince of Morrocco, she also displays a somewhat racist preference, stating:

... if he have the condition
of a saint and the complexion of a devil, I had
rather he should shrive me than wive me.

She would most definitely wish her partner to be of her own race than not.

And there we have it. Whether Bassanio, whom she later weds, fits Portia's idealised version of a man, is another story.




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