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We now meet Portia, who turns out to be more than a spoiled little rich girl. Portia complains to her woman-in-waiting (read: her sidekick), Nerissa, that she's tired of the world. Nerissa points out that being rich doesn't exempt one from problems.
Portia retorts that it's easier to give advice than take it. Then she clues us in about why she's so bummed out. It turns out that Portia can neither choose nor refuse a husband, but must instead follow her dead father's will.
Nerissa clears up exactly what was in this dead father's will. It seems that he set up a lottery to determine whom Portia would marry. The lottery involves three chests—one gold, one silver, and one lead. Whoever chooses the correct chest gets Portia.
Nerissa is somehow convinced that whoever chooses rightly will truly love Portia, too.
Brain snack: Portia isn't the only Shakespeare heroine who doesn't get to choose her own husband. In The Taming of the Shrew, Baptista Minola arranges his daughter's marriage to Petruchio. Although the elaborate lottery Portia's father has arranged is pretty unusual, it was typical for 16th-century dads to choose their daughters' husbands.
Nerissa thinks this whole lottery thing is a really good plan because Portia's father was virtuous guy. She adds that Portia's complaints about not being able to choose a man are frivolous, and she asks whether Portia likes any of the suitors she's seen so far.
Portia asks Nerissa to list off each of the suitors so she can scorn them each individually. The Neapolitan prince talks only of his horse, which he can shoe himself to his great pleasure. Portia suggests that his mother must have been unfaithful with a smith who shoed horses. Count Palatine is too gloomy, and the French lord, Monsieur Le Bon, has too many personalities for Portia to make fun of each of them.
Nerissa continues to list suitors: Falconbridge, the young English baron, doesn't speak any languages that Portia understands; he lacks Latin, French, and Italian, and Portia herself isn't too hot in the English-speaking department. (Yeah, Shakespeare is cracking a little joke here, since his play is written in English.)
Portia quips that the young English baron has no proper manners, and even worse, dresses in a hodgepodge of clothes from other countries.
Portia then rags on the Scottish lord, another of the suitors. She says the best she can say of the Scot is that he took a blow from (literally "was hit by") the Englishman, and very kindly offered to pay it back with the support of the Frenchman. (This is Shakespeare's way of poking fun of the French, who were always promising to help the Scottish fight against the English.)
Finally, Portia rails on a German, nephew of the Duke of Saxony. She doesn't like him when he's sober, but she especially doesn't like him when he's drunk, which is every afternoon.
Nerissa teases that Portia will have to go through with her father's will and marry the drunk German if he picks the right casket.
Regardless, Nerissa promises she isn't worried for Portia; each of the suitors have told her that they intend to leave soon enough, unless some other means of winning Portia's hand (besides the lottery) should arise. It seems there is some "imposition," or cost, to choosing the wrong casket that the suitors would rather not risk.
Portia insists she'll accept no man except as dictated by her father's will.
Still, there is one man, Nerissa points out, who wasn't all that bad. Bassanio, a scholar and a soldier who once visited Portia's court, seemed like the marrying type.
A servant then enters announcing that the suitors are leaving. Score. As the four of them leave, a fifth, the Prince of Morocco, is on his way in, and Portia makes a nasty remark about him. Because he's black like "a devil," Portia says she doesn't care if he's a saint—there's no way she wants to marry him.
History Snack: In Shakespeare's England, black skin was often associated with the devil. This racist concept emerges in other plays, like Othello and Titus Andronicus. Here's an example: in a famous book called The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) Reginald Scott wrote, "A damned soule may and dooth take the shape of a black moore [...] Bodin alloweth the divell the shape of a blacke moore, and he saith he used to appear to Mawd Cruse, Kate Darey, and Jone Harviller."
Portia readies Nerissa to greet the Moroccan prince and complains that as soon as one suitor leaves, another follows quickly to take his place. Life is so hard.