Explanatory Notes for Act 3, Scene 2
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.
Much has happened since the departure of Bassanio. At Belmont the stately Prince of Morocco has made his choice and failed, and the solemn Arragon has followed with no better fate. In Venice Shylock, maddened by his double loss, has raged through the streets, a rabble of boys at his heels, and Tubal has had time to
search for the runaways as far as Genoa and back. Rumors, too, of Antonio's losses on distant seas are reported at Venice. On the other hand, although Portia's words, - those of a maiden more than
half won, - preclude our thinking of Bassanio as exactly "fresh
from Venice" on the opening of this scene, such impetuosity as
his, for he "lives upon the rack," we feel cannot have permitted a
long postponement of his choice, and we are lured away from the
thought of Tubal's search and a rumor slowly making its way
across the continent of Europe from Goodwin Sands to the contemplation of a lapse of time that could not have exceeded a few
days. Compare with this the concluding note on Act II, Scene VI.
In the present scene Portia desires Bassanio to "tarry" for fear
he choose wrong; but Bassanio is impatient to know his fate, and
choosing the leaden casket finds therein "fair Portia's counterfeit."
Portia is thus doubly won, by the terms of her father's will and by
the promptings of her own heart. Meanwhile Gratiano has gained
Nerissa to consent to marry him if Bassanio's choice shall prove
fortunate. So that both couples are happy in Bassanio's success.
At this moment, the climax of the story of the caskets, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive with a messenger from Venice by whom it appears that all of Antonio's ventures by sea have failed, his bond has been forfeited, and he lies in prison awaiting the supreme exaction
of the Jew.
2. in [the event of your] choosing wrong.
7-10. Portia is anxious that Bassanio may not choose hastily.
She is deeply in love with him, but "yet a maiden hath no tongue
but thoughts" [i.e. it becomes her not to tell him so]; and she
wishes simply to detain him, at first a day or two, which rises in her
eagerness to a month or two. But she is equally concerned lest
Bassanio mistake her attitude for an unmaidenly declaration of love.
14. Beshrew, a very mild imprecation, "Woe to your eyes."
20, 21. These lines, which offer an excellent illustration of
the extreme pregnancy of Shakespeare's thought, have been explained: "If it prove that I, who am yours by affection, am not
yours owing to your unlucky choice of casket, Fortune ought to
suffer the penalty, not I; and yet to lose you will be hell for me."
29. fear [for] the enjoying, doubt if I shall enjoy.
30, 31. There may ... as [between] treason and my love.
35. 'Confess' and 'love,' love is the sum total of my confession.
44. swan-like end, in allusion to the popular belief that the swan
sings before its death. Shakespeare is fond of the allusion; see
Othello, v. 2. 247; and King John, v. 7. 21.
49. The moment of crowning an English sovereign is heralded
by a flourish of trumpets. Some critics have sought to date this
play, 1594, because of this, a supposed allusion to the crowning of
Henry of Navarre in that year.
52. The bridegroom was thus awakened by the musicians engaged to accompany him to the bride's house.
55. young Alcides. Hercules rescued Hesione who, as a virgin tribute to appease the wrath of Neptune, had been chained to a
rock by her father, Laomedon, to be devoured by a sea-monster.
But Bassanio approaches his perilous undertaking with much more
love [line 54], because Hercules was urged to his exploit not for
love of the lady, but for the horses which Laomedon had promised
him. The whole similitude in which Bassanio is likened to young
Alcides, Portia to Hesione, the virgin tribute, and Portia's attendants to the Dardanian wives [women, the descendants of Dardanus, the ancestor of the Trojans], is full of the spirit of Greek
61. Live thou [if thou live], I live. The subjunctive is not
infrequently indicated by placing the verb before its subject.
The line is perfectly metrical without doubling the word much.
63. fancy is often synonymous with love. See Much Ado About
Nothing, iii. 2. 31-32. Here, however, fancy is affection bred by
the sight; and neither the product of the heart nor the head. Did
Portia unconsciously break her oath in providing that this song be
sung? Or did Nerissa? She had openly praised Bassanio (i. 2. 129-131). The maid in one of Shakespeare's possible sources,
Il Pecarone, gave the lover a hint.
73. the outward shows [of things] be least [like the things] themselves.
82. his, the old neuter of the possessive pronoun it or hit. Its
is found only toward the end of the sixteenth century. Its appears
in no work of Shakespeare's published in his lifetime, although the
form occurs ten times in the folio, usually in the spelling it's.
86. livers white as milk. Compare 2 Henry IV. iv. 3. 113:
"The liver white and pale, which is the badge of pusillanimity and
87. excrement, a word often applied to the hair. See The Winter's Tale, iv. 4. 733: "Let me pocket up my pedler's excrement.
[ Takes off his false beard.]"
88. beauty, that is, mere beauty. Notice the usual Shakespearean
play on the words weight and light.
92-96. those crisped snaky golden locks ... bred ... in
the sepulchre. Shakespeare expresses much the same thought in
Sonnet lxviii. The fashion among women of wearing wigs had
become very common toward the end of Elizabeth's reign.
94. Upon supposed fairness, "on the strength of their fictitious
beauty." Compare 3 Henry VI, iii. 3. 223: "And tell false Edward, thy supposed king."
99. an Indian beauty, a woman that an Indian might consider a beauty.
102. Midas, the foolish Phrygian king, who asked that everything that he touched might be turned to gold; and, his wish
granted, nearly perished of hunger.
106. paleness, as Bassanio has already called silver pale, plainness has been suggested as the right reading, thus bringing out a contrast with eloquence. As, however, lead is frequently described
as pale, this reading of all the old editions should be preserved.
109. As, such as, as namely.
112. rain thy joy. Compare 1 Henry IV, v. 1. 47: "It rain'd
down fortune showering on your head." Rein is an inferior reading.
117. Or whether. Whether is sometimes used after or where we
should omit one of the two. Compare Coriolanus, i. 3. 69: "Or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas."
120. hairs. Used in the plural in Shakespeare's day. Compare King John, iii. 4. 66: "Bind up your hairs."
124. having made one. We expect a verb agreeing with this
clause to follow; but in the hurry of Bassanio's rapturous speech
the construction is not carried out. Such examples of colloquial
phraseology in Shakespeare, far from being blemishes, add greatly
to the dramatic quality of his dialogue.
126. unfurnished, unmatched with its fellow eye.
126, 128. how far ... so far, in modern English as ... so.
140. Notice how Bassanio's delight and exaltation of spirit at
his success is expressed in the continuance after the "scroll" of
rhyming lines; and how Portia's succeeding lines, in their deep
seriousness, drop back into blank verse.
141. I come by note [in accordance with the scroll or warrant
just read] to give [a kiss] and to receive [you, the lady].
145. Broken as this
line is, it is not unmetrical; spirit may have been pronounced as
160. sum of - nothing. Preferable to the reading something,
of equally good authority, because it conforms more with the
negations (unlesson'd, unschool'd, unpractised) that follow, and is
more in accord with the careless, happy depreciation of herself
which characterizes Portia's whole speech.
162. Happy in this. The old editions all read "Happiest
is this," explained by regarding Happiest as neuter, the happiest
of all is (it or this), etc. The emendation in preserves the construction; happy in this ... happier than this ... happiest of all in, etc.
173. this ring. The giving of a ring as a token of fidelity
is of frequent occurrence in the old drama. See Romeo and Juliet,
iii. 2. 142. The employment of the device of the episode of Portia's
ring to lighten the gravity of the ending of this comedy is one
of the happiest examples of Shakespeare's consummate dramatic
176. vantage, the position of one who is master of the situation.
To exclaim on one is to complain of one's conduct. For vantage,
see Hamlet, v. 2. 401; for exclaim on, see 1 Henry VI, v. 3. 134.
185. Express'd and not express'd, expressed in inarticulate sounds.
193. none from me, none different from me, none which I do
not wish you.
200. the maid. Nerissa was in no respect a servant. She was
doubtless as well born, though not as rich, as Portia herself; and
bore the same relation of friendship and companionship to Portia
that Gratiano, a gentleman by birth, bore to his friend Bassanio.
214. shall be, in modern English will be.
223. A question has been raised as to why Jessica receives no
welcome from Portia. This is only apparent. General salutations
between the two parties take place while Bassanio is speaking; but
the importance of Lorenzo's message to Bassanio usurps the place
which mere courtesies might otherwise occupy. Portia being engaged in the interest which Antonio's letter excites, Gratiano (in
line 240) calls Nerissa to the charge of Jessica.
232. past all saying nay, beyond the possibility of refusal.
240-253. The dialogue of these lines is carried on while Bassanio is reading Antonio's letter.
242. royal, a term applied to the wealthy and powerful Italian
merchants who aided kingdoms with their funds, and often held
mortgages on them. The Medici and the Pozzi in Italy, the
Fuggers in Germany, and Sir Thomas Gresham in England were
merchants of this type. The term here conveys no more than a
complimentary allusion to Antonio's wealth.
252. And I must freely have the half of anything, an Alexandrine line, scan it how we will. There is no reason why we
should not acknowledge frankly that, intentionally or inadvertently, Shakespeare frequently uses the Alexandrine in single
lines in his dramatic verse.
275. it should appear. This use of shall is much like the German
sollen, which means is to and not quite ought.
280. And doth impeach the freedom of the state, denies that those, like himself not natives of Venice, have equal rights there if, etc.
See below, iv. 1. 38: "If you deny it, let the danger light Upon your charter and your city's freedom."
282. magnificoes, the chief men of Venice were so called.
295. unwearied, that is most unwearied, the superlative is communicated from the words kindest and best-condition'd. Compare
above, ii. 1. 46: "To make me blest or cursed'st among men."
304. thorough, through, as often spelled.
315. Since you are dear bought [with all the anxiety that I have
suffered while your fate as a suitor hung in the balance].
321. between you and I. This is so common as to amount to an
Elizabethan idiom. Compare above, ii. 6. 30. None of the old
copies indicate that Bassanio reads this letter, and yet, as Portia
asks to "hear the letter of your friend," the assignment of the
reading to Bassanio seems proper. Dr. Furness finely suggests that
Bassanio read until the words, "If I might see you at my death,"
and his voice failing him from emotion, that Portia finish the reading, and passionately add without pause: "O love, despatch all business and be gone!"
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co., 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/merchant_3_2.html >.