This page contains the transition between Scene I and Scene II in Act I of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. The first scene ends with Bassanio and Antonio discussing how they intend to go about securing the funds for Bassanio’s quest to seek Portia’s hand in marriage, and the second begins with Portia and her waiting woman Nerrisa discussing Portia’s discontent with her lack of agency with respect to who she will be married to.
In annotating this page we elected to focus on the absolute roles of men and women during Shakespeare’s time as portrayed in Merchant, focusing in particular on the lack of effect that money or societal status had on one’s ability to make their own choices and decisions.
This phenomenon is epitomized by the respective discussions between Antonio and Bassanio and Portia and Nerrisa on this page. Despite the fact that Bassanio is not a wealthy man, he is able to pursue his interests —in this case being Portia’s hand in marriage— relatively easily, simply because he is a man. Contrarily, although Portia is extraordinarily wealthy, she finds herself beholden to the will of her deceased father. She is completely unable to pursue her own interests, as she vocalizes in the dialogue portrayed on this page, even though she has all the money she could ever need.
And many Iasons come in quest of her.
O my Anthonio, had I but the meanes
To hold a riuall place with one of them,
I haue a minde presages me such thrift
That I should questionlesse be fortunate. 1
Anth. Thou knowst that all my fortunes are at sea,
Neither haue I money, nor commoditie 1
To raise a present summe, therefore goe forth
Try what my credite can in Venice doe,
That shall be rackt euen to the vttermost
To furnish thee to Belmont to faire Portia. 2
Goe presently enquire and so will I
where money is, and I no question make
To haue it 3of my trust, or for my sake. Exeunt.
Enter Portia with her wayting woman Nerrissa. 4
Portia. By my troth Nerrissa, my little body is awearie of this
Ner. You would be sweet Madam, if your miseries were in the
same aboundance as your good fortunes are5: and yet for ought I
see, they are as sicke that surfeite with too much, as they that starue
with nothing; it is no meane happines therfore to be seated in the
meane, superfluitie comes sooner by white haires, but competen-
cie liues longer.
Portia. Good sentences, and well pronounc'd.
Ner. They would be better if well followed.
Portia. If to do were as easie as to know what were good to do,
Chappels had beene Churches, and poore mens cottages Princes
Pallaces, it is a good diuine that followes his owne instructions, I
can easier teach twentie what were good to be done, then to be one
of the twentie to follow mine owne teaching: the braine may de-
uise lawes for the blood, but a hote temper leapes ore a colde de-
cree, such a hare is madnes the youth, to skippe ore the meshes of
good counsaile the cripple; but this reasoning is not in the fashion
to choose mee a husband, ô mee the word choose, I may neyther
choose who I would, nor refuse who I dislike, so is the will of a ly-
uing daughter curbd by the will of a deade father: 6 is it not harde
Image credit: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library, copy G.176.16. The most excellent historie of the merchant of Venice. First Quarto. London: 1600.
Citing this page: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, A4v. London: 1600. Cacodemon Digital Shakespeare. Edited by Professor Erika Boeckeler's Spring 2020 Introduction to Shakespeare class. Source edition: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library (copy G.176.16). http://cacodemonshakespeare.com/comedies/merchant/a4v/.
- Bassiano is poor, but confident. Although he has no money ("had I but the means/ To hold a royal place") he does not doubt in the slightest that if he had money, he would be successful in accomplishing his goal of wooing Portia. He is afforded significant agency as a man, the agency to acquire a large sum of money despite his history of poor financial decisions, and more importantly the agency to choose Portia to be his wife.
- Antonio will subsidize Bassiano's suit of Portia, despite the fact that he has no liquidity. His reputation as a merchant and agency as a man will allow him to easily borrow large sums of money.
- Here Antonio explains he is entirely confident that he will be able to borrow the money. These two essentially broke men do not doubt in the slightest that they will be able to achieve their respective goals, even without the power that money brings; the agency they have as men gives them the power to move vast sums and choose wives without doubt or hesitation.
- Although not specified in this version of the text, this break marks the transition from Act 1 Scene 1 to Act 1 Scene 2.
- Nerissa reminds Portia that she is wealthy, and so should not be miserable. However, although Portia is wealthy she is not even allowed to choose her husband, which may contribute to her weariness “of this great world.”
- Here Portia summarizes, that although she is exceedingly rich as she and Nerrisa have discussed, she is entirely powerless with respect to who she will marry. Her father's will, despite the fact that he is dead, is still shaping her life, once again due to his agency as a man and her lack thereof. Poor and dead men can do anything, and Portia can do nothing, despite her wealth.