Summary and Analysis
At Belmont, Portia discusses the terms of her father's will with her confidante, Nerissa. According to the will of her late father, Portia cannot marry a man of her own choosing. Instead, she must make herself available to all suitors and accept the one who chooses "rightly" from among "three chests of gold, silver and lead." Nerissa tries to comfort Portia and tells her that surely her father knew what he was doing; whoever the man might be who finally chooses "rightly," surely he will be "one who shall rightly love." Portia is not so certain. None of her current suitors is the kind of man whom she would choose for herself if she could choose. She cannot, however, for she gave her word that she would be obedient to her father's last wishes.
Nerissa asks her to reconsider the gentlemen who have courted her, and she names the suitors who have come to Belmont — a Neapolitan prince; the County Palatine; a French lord, Monsieur Le Bon; a young English baron, Falconbridge; a Scottish lord; and a young German, the Duke of Saxony's nephew. Portia caustically comments on their individual faults, finding each one of them undesirable as a husband. Fortunately, all of them have decided to return home, unwilling to risk the penalty for choosing the wrong casket — which is, remaining a bachelor for the rest of their lives.
Nerissa then reminds her mistress of a gentleman who came to Belmont while Portia's father was living — his name was Bassanio, a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier. Portia recalls him and praises him highly: "He, of all the men that ever my foolish eyes looked upon, was the best deserving of a fair lady." A servant interrupts the conversation and announces that a new suitor, the Prince of Morocco, will arrive that evening.
First off, the opening of this scene is deliberately reminiscent of the opening of Scene 1. Like Antonio, Portia announces her sadness, but unlike Antonio's, Portia's sadness is clearly due to the conditions imposed on her by her dead father's will: in the matter of her marriage, she must abide by the test of the choice of the three caskets; she can "neither choose who I would nor refuse who dislike [as a husband]."
We had been led to expect that Portia would be a woman who was very beautiful and very rich, but what we have now before us is a woman who is not only fair but quite impressive for her wit, for her agility of mind and for her sharp, satiric intelligence. It is, in fact, Portia's satiric flair that provides this comedy with most of its sparkle; here, it is displayed brilliantly when Nerissa urges Portia to reconsider her various suitors thus far, and Portia offers her wry and droll comments on each one.
It is at this point that Shakespeare is giving his audience the conventional Elizabethan satiric view of the other European nations. Portia's dismissal of each of her suitors corresponds to her age's caricatures of the typical Italian, Frenchman, German, and so on. The Neapolitan prince "does nothing but talk of his horse," a characteristic of only the southern Italian; the "County Palatine" (from the Rhineland) is a pure, unadulterated dullard; he is unable to laugh at anything; "Monsieur Le Bon" is "every man in no man" — that is to say, he has many superficial and changeable characters but no single, substantial one. (To marry him, as Portia says, would be "to marry twenty husbands.") The English suitor, on the other hand, affects European fashions in clothing but gets all of the various national fads — in clothes, music, literature, etc. — completely confused, and refuses to speak any language except his own. And then there is the Scot — defined by his anger at the English; and finally, there is the German who does nothing but drink. Portia sensibly refuses to be married to a "sponge."
Basically, we can say that this scene has three major purposes. First, it outlines the device of the caskets for us, which will provide the dramatic basis for the scenes in which the various suitors "hazard" their choice of the proper casket for Portia's hand in marriage. Second, it introduces us to Portia — not simply as the "fair" object of Bassanio's love, but as a woman of powerful character and wit, perceptive about the people around her and quite able to hold her own in verbal combat with anyone in the play. This is a very important quality, given Portia's subsequent importance in the development of the plot. Her brilliance much later in the play, as a result, will not come as a surprise to the audience, especially when she superbly outwits the crafty Shylock. Finally, there is a minor but significant touch toward the end of the scene, when Nerissa asks Portia whether or not she remembers a certain "Venetian, a scholar and a soldier" who had earlier visited Belmont. First, we hear Portia's immediate recall of Bassanio, indicating her vivid memory of him and implying an interest in him. This scene reminds us that, despite the obstructions to come, this is a comedy, and that because of Bassanio's attempt to win Portia and her affection for him, both of them will be finally rewarded.