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The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice


by William Shakespeare

Portia Timeline and Summary

  • 1.2: Portia announces she's tired of the world.
  • 1.2: Portia listens to Nerissa's advice about moderation, but she points out that it's easier to know you should live sensibly than actually do it. Portia then informs us of her plight: she can't choose her own husband; she has to follow her father's will. She laments that it's a tough life, given that she is fabulously rich and besieged by men from all over the world.
  • 1.2: Portia has Nerissa list all the important men who've come to court her, so she can in turn list what's wrong with each of them.
  • 1.2: Portia complains that she'll die an old virgin unless someone wins her father's lottery. Still, she wishes all her suitors would just go away.
  • 1.2: Portia and Nerissa remember the young Venetian Bassanio favorably. Now he was worthy of praise.
  • 1.2: Portia hears from a messenger that while four of her other suitors are leaving, the Prince of Morocco is just arriving to court her. Portia is glad to see them go but notes that she would rather not marry the Moroccan because he's likely to not be white.
  • 2.1: Portia chats with—or, more accurately, lies to—the Prince of Morocco. She says it's not up to her whom she marries, but if she had to marry anybody, she'd be as happy to marry him as any of the other suitors. (Remember, she doesn't really want to marry any of the other suitors, so this means she doesn't want to marry him either.)
  • 2.1: Portia tells the Prince that if he chooses to play the lottery, he'll have to abide by her dead father's rules: regardless of whether he loses or wins, he can never marry another woman. Later Portia goes on to detail the other rules of the challenge—after dinner she explains that winning the game means choosing the casket that contains her picture.
  • 2.7: The Prince of Morocco chooses the wrong casket. After he leaves, Portia basically says "good riddance" and adds that she hopes all other men who share the Prince's dark complexion will also choose the wrong casket. (Nice, huh?)
  • 2.9: Portia faces the Prince of Arragon, who has also arrived to try his hand at the lottery. Portia shows him the caskets and explains the rules, including the fact that if he loses he'll have to go away immediately. (She's getting less diplomatic as the games wear on.)
  • 2.9: Portia doesn't seem at all sad when Arragon chooses the silver casket and finds a picture of a fool instead of her. She makes snarky comments dismissing all the suitors as calculating fools.
  • 2.9: Portia gets news from a messenger that a young Venetian has come to her gate to announce his master's imminent entrance. Portia teases the messenger for his high praise, but still rushes off with Nerissa to see the young man, giddy as a schoolgirl.
  • 3.2: Portia muddles around, trying to tell Bassanio that she digs him but unable to say so directly. She tries to convince him to hang out for a while before he plays the casket lottery, as she would be really unhappy to see him go. She wishes she could tell him how to win the game, but that would be cheating. Then she ponders that, if he loses, she'll be sinning in the sense that she will wish she had helped him cheat. So either way, she's a sinner. Then she complains some more about not being able to make her own choices.
  • 3.2: Portia and Bassanio fawn over each other for some time. She consents to let him try his hand at the casket gig, adding that he's likely to find her portrait and win her if he loves her. She tells everyone to stand back so the man can make his choice, and asks that music be played, which will either be fun if he wins or a swan song if he loses. She compares him to Hercules on his quest to rescue a virgin from a sea monster, and compares herself to that virgin sacrifice.
  • 3.2: Portia delights in Bassanio's choice of the lead casket. She knows he's picked the right one and that she'll now be his wife. She immediately gets a fluttery stomach and tries to calm herself down.
  • 3.2: Portia responds to Bassanio's shock about making the right choice. She's clearly excited, but she asks him to take her as she is. She's inexperienced at being the best wife ever, but she's ready and willing to learn. She also wishes she could be better—prettier and wealthier—for his sake. She notes that he is now her lord and king, and she's now under his direction. All of her belongings, mansion, and servants are now his. Finally she gives him a ring, qualifying her gift with a promise that if he loses it or gives it away, it's as good as ruining their love.
  • 3.2: Portia asks Nerissa if it's true that Graziano has won her love. Apparently, now that Portia's paired off, she might as well get married too.
  • 3.2: Portia welcomes all of Bassanio's friends, but she's alarmed when she sees Bassanio's reaction to the letter Salerio has brought from Venice. She thinks the letter must declare the death of some dear friend. She encourages Bassanio to share the bad news with her, as she's now his other half.
  • 3.2: Portia gets filled in on Antonio's situation back in Venice. Hearing how much Antonio owes Shylock on behalf of her husband, she immediately offers to pay the principal, and many times more. No great friend of Bassanio shall suffer while she stands by to watch. Still, she'd like Bassanio to wed her at church before he sets off to straighten up the Antonio affair in Venice. She's promised the thing will get settled with her offer to pay twenty times what's owed. While the boys are away, Portia says, she and Nerissa will live as virgins and widows. After hearing the letter containing Antonio's sad fate, Portia again insists that Bassanio go to Venice immediately after he's finished the marriage business in Belmont.
  • 3.4: Lorenzo compliments Portia for being so gracious about the Antonio thing. She deflects his compliments—since she knows Antonio is "the bosom lover" of her lord, it's no big deal to pay what to her is a trifling sum for everyone's peace. She changes the subject, saying she doesn't want to praise herself. Portia asks Lorenzo to stand in for her as master of the house for a while (heaven forbid the servants should be left unsupervised for a few days). She says she and Nerissa are going to a monastery to engage in prayer and contemplation until their husbands come home.
  • 3.4: Portia then chats with her attendant Balthazar. She asks him to take a letter to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, in Padua. She instructs him to take whatever letters and clothes Bellario gives him and meet her at the ferry to Venice. She'll be there waiting for him, she says, and it's an urgent trip.
  • 3.4: Portia then tells Nerissa that the women will see their husbands before their husbands even think of them. She explains her meaning: the men will see them, but they won't recognize them, since the women will be dressed as men. Portia thinks she'll make a pretty good boy. Nerissa is unsure why they need to be dressed as men, but Portia says she'll explain everything in the coach. Right now, they need to focus on the long road ahead to Venice.
  • 4.1: Portia and Nerissa, disguised as men, arrive at the court in Venice. She's posing as the young doctor (lawyer) Balthazar and tells the Duke she's been briefed by Doctor Bellario and is prepared to face Antonio and Shylock's case.
  • 4.1: After meeting Shylock and Antonio, she announces Shylock should be merciful, as mercy is close to godliness. She declares that if people followed the letter of the law all the time instead of mercy, everyone would be damned to hell. As people pray for mercy, they should be willing to give it, too. She hopes her speech will soften Shylock's dogged determination to have his pound of flesh.
  • 4.1: Exploring alternative options, Portia asks whether Antonio can't just pay back what he owes Shylock. But Shylock isn't interested in the sum anymore, just Antonio's flesh.
  • 4.1: Portia responds to Bassanio's plea to the Duke to bend the rules a little bit. She says bending the rules would set a poor precedent that would result in everyone and their mother suing the state.
  • 4.1: Portia reiterates that Shylock is being offered three times the debt. She nearly pleads with him. She admits that Antonio has legally broken his oath, so Shylock technically has the right to take a pound of his flesh, but still, can't he just take a chill-pill?
  • 4.1: When Antonio gives up and tells them to hurry up and get the thing over with already, Portia turns her attentions to him. She tells Antonio he must prepare to go under the knife.
  • 4.1: Portia works out the logistical details. She makes sure there's a scale around to weigh the flesh and asks if there's a surgeon nearby to stop the bleeding. When Shylock makes the point that a surgeon isn't really part of the deal, she reminds him that, deal or no, it would still be the charitable thing to do.
  • 4.1: When Bassanio declares he'd be willing to give up his life, his wife, and the world for Antonio, Portia responds that, were Bassanio's wife around, she probably wouldn't be pleased to hear him say so.
  • 4.1: Back to business, Portia outlines what Shylock is awarded by law: he gets a pound of flesh, to be cut from Antonio's breast. But then she pauses for the great big catch. She points out that while Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh, the bond said nothing about blood. If Shylock spills just a drop of Antonio's blood, Shylock will have his wealth confiscated by the Venetian government.
  • 4.1: Portia says Shylock wanted justice, and it's justice he'll get—to the letter of the law. She won't even allow Shylock to take the money Bassanio offers; instead, he'll have only the penalty he was so hell-bent on before (Antonio's flesh). Basically, Shylock must take exactly one pound of flesh, and no blood, or nothing at all.
  • 4.1: Portia's not done with Shylock just yet. She brings up another aspect of Venetian law, which says that if any non-Venetian directly or indirectly seeks the life of a Venetian, his intended victim will get half his stuff, with the other half going to the state. Also, the Duke gets to decide whether Shylock should be killed, as this whole Antonio-flesh obsession was clearly about attempting to murder Antonio indirectly.
  • 4.1: Portia finishes up by asking Antonio what mercy he might want to show Shylock. She asks Shylock if he's content, which of course he has no choice but to be, and then orders the clerk to set up the "gift" Shylock will give his daughter upon his death: namely, everything.
  • 4.1: Portia gently rebuffs a dinner invitation from the Duke after the trial is over. She says she's got to get back to Padua that same night.
  • 4.1: Portia listens as Antonio and Bassanio fawn about her, telling her (who, remember, they think is a guy) that they're indebted to her (him) forever. Portia refuses to take the money that would have gone to Shylock (which is, you'll remember, her money anyway). She says she's satisfied with her work, which is payment enough. Still, as Bassanio presses her, Portia says she will take Antonio's gloves. Oh, and Bassanio's ring.
  • 4.1: As Bassanio hesitates, Portia insists. She says she wants nothing but the ring and then jabs a bit at Bassanio as he explains that he can't give it away. She says no sane wife would mind if Bassanio gave Balthazar the ring, knowing how much Balthazar deserved it. Then she leaves in a huff—without the ring.
  • 4.2: Portia finishes up her business in Venice. She instructs Nerissa to find Shylock's house and have him sign the court order so they can hurry up and get home that night, before their husbands return.
  • 4.2: Portia refuses Bassanio's dinner invitation (as delivered by Graziano). Graziano has brought her the ring, explaining that Bassanio changed his mind after hearing more counsel on the matter. Portia takes the ring and goes back to her business of finding Shylock's place.
  • 4.2: Portia plots mischief with Nerissa—they plan to give the men a hard time for giving away their rings.
  • 5.1: Portia marvels at a bright candle she sees shining from her hall. She compares it to a good deed in a world full of wickedness.
  • 5.1: She then embarks on a philosophical discussion about how an object can only be judged in its proper context and as compared to other things.
  • 5.1: Portia happily greets Lorenzo with a lie about how she and Nerissa have been off praying for their men. She asks Lorenzo if the men have come home yet. Hearing that they're on their way, Portia reiterates that she'd rather the servants (and Lorenzo and Jessica) not mention that she and Nerissa were gone.
  • 5.1: Portia warmly welcomes Bassanio home and "meets" Antonio as well. She bids them all welcome.
  • 5.1: Portia hears the quarrel between Graziano and Nerissa. She gives her opinion on the fight, which is that Graziano's at fault here for giving up his wife's first gift to him. She tactfully brings up the ring she gave Bassanio, and says she's sure he wouldn't have gotten rid of it for anything in the whole world. She says if she were Nerissa, she'd be pissed at Graziano.
  • 5.1: Portia then "finds out" about Bassanio giving away the ring. She swears she won't go to bed with him until she gets the ring back. She accuses him of undervaluing her and concludes that he gave the ring to a woman.
  • 5.1: Portia "learns" that Bassanio gave her ring to a young doctor, Balthazar. She says that since he gave the doctor what he wanted, she will too—even if the doctor wants to have sex with her in her husband's bed. (Oh my!) She says she'll "know" this doctor soon enough (in the biblical sense).
  • 5.1: Antonio says all of this quarreling is his fault, but Portia tells him not to worry about it. He's welcome anyway. Bassanio tries to wiggle out of the bind, and Portia quarrels with him a bit more. She says Antonio can vouch for him again on his oath, but hopefully he'll keep it better than the last one.
  • 5.1: Portia then shows Bassanio the ring he gave Balthazar. It was easy, she says—she just slept with the doctor to get it.
  • 5.1: Portia finally clears everything up by handing over a letter from Bellario that explains that Portia, far from sleeping with the doctor, actually was the doctor. It was she who defended Antonio at Shylock's trial. Further, Lorenzo can vouch for her and Nerissa's absence. Portia then gives Antonio another letter, of unknown origin, reporting that three of his ships came home safely and prosperously after all.
  • 5.1: Portia deflects Antonio's gratitude. Then she gives Lorenzo the deed that grants Shylock's inheritance to him and Jessica after Shylock's death. She deflects his thanks as well. She says it's nearly morning, so they should go inside, where she and Nerissa will answer all the questions that undoubtedly remain.