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The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Act I, scenes i–ii

Summary Act I, scenes i–ii

Act I, scene ii introduces Portia, the heroine of the play, and establishes the casket test through which she will find a husband. After we see more of Portia, her compliance with her dead father’s instructions may seem odd, as she proves to be an extremely independent and strong-willed character. However, her adherence to her father’s will establishes an important aspect of her character: she plays by the rules. Her strict adherence to laws and other strictures makes her an interesting counterpoint to Shylock, the play’s villain, whom we meet in the next scene.

Because Portia is such a fabulously wealthy heiress, the only men eligible to court her are from the highest end of the social strata. As a result, the competition between her suitors is international, including noblemen from various parts of Europe and even Africa. Portia’s description of her previous suitors serves as a vehicle for Shakespeare to satirize the nobleman of France, Scotland, Germany, and England for the amusement of his English audience. At the end of the scene, the arrival of the prince of Morocco is announced, introducing a suitor who is racially and culturally more distant from Portia than her previous suitors. The casket test seems designed to give an equal chance to all of these different noblemen, so the competition for Portia’s hand and wealth in Belmont parallels the financial community of Venice, which is also organized to include men of many nations, Christian and non-Christian alike. Portia’s remarks about the prince of Morocco’s devilish skin color, however, show that she is rooting for a husband who is culturally and racially similar to her. In fact, she hopes to marry Bassanio, the suitor with the background closest to hers.