The Merchant of Venice By William Shakespeare Summary and Analysis Act II: Scene 1

Summary

There is a flourish of trumpets, and the Prince of Morocco enters. Portia, along with her confidante, Nerissa, and several ladies-in-waiting are present, and the prince, knowing that he is only one of many suitors who seek Portia's hand in marriage, begins his courtship straightforwardly — that is, he initiates the subject of the color of his skin. Being from Morocco, he comes "in the shadowed livery of the burnished sun." He has a very dark complexion, and he begs Portia to "mislike [him] not for [his] complexion." Despite the color of his skin, however, his blood is as red as any of Portia's other suitors, and he is as brave as any of them.

Portia tells him that he is "as fair" as any of the men who have come to seek her "affection." Furthermore, were she not bound by the terms of her father's will, he would stand as good a chance as any other suitor. According to her father's will, however, if the prince wishes to try for her hand, he must take his chances like all the others. If he chooses wrongly, he must remain a bachelor forever; he is "never to speak to lady afterward / In way of marriage."

The prince is not easily deterred; he is ready for the test. All in good time, says Portia; first, they shall have dinner together. Then his "hazard shall be made." There is a flourish of trumpets, and the two exit.

Analysis

In contrast to the businesslike mood of Act I, this act begins with much visual and verbal pomp. Visually, the Prince of Morocco and Portia enter from opposite sides of the stage to a "flourish of cornets," each followed by a train of attendants. Morocco then opens the dialogue with a proud reference to his dark skin, and the rich, regular, sonorous poetry which Shakespeare gives him to speak suggests that the prince possesses a large, imposing physical presence. Because we have already listened to Portia blithely dismiss the other suitors who have already appeared at Belmont so far, here, her greeting has both courtesy and respect — "Yourself, renowned Prince, then stood as fair / As any comer I have looked on yet / For my affection."

Since there are three caskets for Portia's suitors to choose from, there will therefore be three occasions in which suitors will attempt the test of the caskets to win Portia in marriage. Thus the three contestants are subtly contrasted. The first, Morocco, is intensely physical; he is a warrior. He speaks of his red blood, the power of his scimitar, and of the courage that can "mock the lion when 'a roars for prey." Morocco is a straightforward soldier-prince; he is rightly self-assured and is contrasted to the Prince of Arragon (in Scene 9 of this act), whose excessive pride is concerned with lineage and position. Both of these suitors will fail, and although the audience knows, or suspects this (since the play is a romantic comedy, it must end happily, with Bassanio making the right choice and winning Portia), this knowledge does not interfere with the thrill of dramatic anticipation as Morocco, first, and, later, Arragon make their choices. Rationally, we may know how a story ends, but this does not prevent our imaginative excitement in watching the unfolding of events.

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