Therefore Let Him Pass for a Man
“By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world.”
With these words we are introduced to Portia, one of Shakespeare’s greatest feminine creation. Only a dunce could miss the parallel between her announced world-weariness and the similar ennui that Antonio announced with his first words, which were also the very first words of the play – I know not why I am so sad.
Antonio the Merchant of Venice was the man who would lend his friend Bassanio the shirt off his back if only he hadn’t put all his money into his shipping ventures, leaving him unable to do more than underwrite a loan to Bassanio from a man who values actual filthy lucre, and has actual coins in an actual purse, Shylock. Were these internal contradictions – or the bare fat that he was forced to engage in the low, unaristocratic practice of commerce – the reason for Antonio’s sadness? And what are the reasons for Portia’s lethargy?
Portia’s girlfriend Nerissa counsels Portia to count her blessings, and Portia responds:
Por: “Good sentences, and well pronounced.”
Ner: “They would be better if well followed.” Por: “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men’s cottages prince’s palaces.”
These famous lines speak to the play’s abiding theme of commerce, saying that if people did as they knew they should, over the generations they would rise in station. That basic precept we learn in high school history about how Europe’s aristocracy feared the slow rise of commerce-oriented commoners to an eventual station above themselves seems to lurk beneath these lines.
Portia then reveals her true complaint, which centers on the odd details of her late father’s will. The old man left three chests, of gold silver and lead, and provided that only a suitor who chooses the correct chest will gain Portia’s hand and fortune. Nerissa asks:
Ner: “But what warmth is there in your affections toward any of these princely suitors that are already come?”
This question gives Shakespeare and Portia the opportunity to pander to nativist English prejudices against foreigners of all stripes, represented by the foreign suitors who have come to woo Portia. After dispensing with one from Naples (a “colt”) and one from the county Palatine “”I had rather be married to a death’s head with a bone in his mouth…”), Portia is asked about a Frenchman:
Por: “God made him, and therefore let him pass for a man.”
And later about how she likes a German:
Por: “Very vilely in the morning, when he is sober, and most vilely in the afternoon, when he is drunk.”
After this good fun, Nerissa reminds Portia of Bassanio, Antonio’s pal, who we the audience know sought to borrow money from Antonio to allow himself to appear rich while courting Portia. Portia allows that she remembers Bassanio, and remembers him “worthy of (Nerissa’s) praise.”
And so we are introduced to Portia. We are but a hair’s breadth away from meeting Shylock, who is approached by Bassanio with Antonio’s voucher, all for the purpose of falsely representing himself to Portia, so stay tuned.