Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 2
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.
Belmont. Most of the directions as to place and scene in the
plays of Shakespeare have been added by modern editors. In the
old editions the reader was left to infer both from the words of
the text. Belmont is supposed to have been situated near the
Brenta, a fair stream of the continent, on the banks of which
were many of the palaces of the magnificoes of Venice. The
highway from Venice to Padua must have run near.
In this scene we learn the conditions under which Portia can
alone be won, and find her heart-whole as to any of her suitors. But Portia is not wholly fancy-free, for on Nerissa's mention of "a
Venetian, a scholar and a soldier, that came hither in company of
the Marquis of Montferrat," and "in your father's time," Portia remembers his name, Bassanio, and that he "was worthy of thy
praise." This touch shows Bassanio no mere adventurer, but a gentleman accredited by his station in a nobleman's train and
by the acceptance of Portia's own father; and prepares us for what might otherwise seem that lady's sudden and unaccountable
preference for Bassanio.
7, 8. no mean happiness ... in the mean. It is no happiness to be despised, therefore, to be stationed in life between the extremes
of poverty and overabundant wealth. Shakespeare shared with
his age a fondness for playing on words. See below, lines 26, 27,
the will [wish, desire] of a living daughter curbed by the will [testament] of a dead father.
28. cannot choose one nor refuse none. In modern English, "Can neither choose one nor refuse any." Nor is often used after not. See Macbeth, ii. 3. 69: "Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor
name thee." For the double negative, see King John, v. 7. 112.
35. No doubt you will never be chosen, etc. Compare Portia's
words to Bassanio, below (iii. 2. 41): "If you do love me, you
will find me out." This is the reading of the first quarto of The
Merchant of Venice; that of the folio is inferior.
44. a colt, a wild, headstrong youth. As the Neapolitans were notably skilled in horsemanship in Shakespeare's day, there is a
play on the word colt.
50. as who should say. Compare i. I. 93, above, and the note
51. 'If you will not have me, choose' [whom you will, and regret your choice]. The sense is plainly: "Whom could you think of
choosing beside such a paragon as I?"
53. the weeping philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, who flourished
about 500 B.C.
58. How say you by the French lord. What say you with reference to, etc. See below, ii. 9. 26: "By the fool multitude"; and
compare the phrase: "Do as you would be done by" [i.e. with reference to].
66. a capering. A is often equal to "on" before verbal nouns.
Compare King Lear, v. 3. 274: "The slave that was a hanging
73. Portia playfully twists Nerissa's word, say, into a different
76. a poor pennyworth in the English, little knowledge of the
80. doublet ... round hose. The doublet was the close-fitting
jacket worn by men in Shakespeare's day. The familiar figure,
Punch, still wears a doublet. Round hose were trousers made very
large and sometimes stuffed, or "bombasted," as it was called, to
make them stand out.
81. bonnet, commonly used for a man's hat. See Richard II,
i. 4. 31: "Off goes his bonnet to an oyster-wench."
88. the Frenchman became his surety. In allusion to the assistance frequently offered by France to Scotland in her quarrels with
England, before the union of the two countries under Elizabeth's successor, King James.
89. sealed under for another [box on the ear]. The principal,
or person entering into a bond, was said to "seal to" the bond;
his surety, i.e. the man who agreed to pay the debt if the principal
did not, was said to " seal under."
100. you should refuse to perform, in modern usage, "You would refuse." Should is the past tense of shall, and has undergone the
same modifications of meaning. Should is not now used with the
second person to denote mere futurity, because it suggests a duty
if not a compulsion. But we retain this use of should in the conditional clause, "If you should refuse," because there can be no
question of compulsion in that case. Shakespeare did not make
109. the having. The article often precedes a verbal noun when
the latter is followed by an object, as here. Compare Macbeth, i. 4,
7: "Nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it."
113. by some other sort, by some other method or manner.
114. your father's imposition, the condition imposed by your
116. Sibylla, used erroneously by Shakespeare as a proper name.
There were several prophetic women known as sibyls in ancient
times. Of them the Cumaean sibyl, consulted by Aeneas, was the
most famous. It was this sibyl that obtained from Apollo a promise that her years should be as many as the grains of sand she was
holding in her hand.
134. four strangers, six were enumerated. The plays of Shakespeare's time were subject to constant revision, and sometimes little
inadvertences, such as this, remain. There may have been but four
suitors named in an earlier version of this play.
135. forerunner, footman.
140, 141. so ... as. As is a contraction of all-so (alse, als, as).
We still say: "As I expected so it happened." The Elizabethans
frequently used the reverse order. See Romeo and Juliet, i. 1.
140: "All so soon as."
146, 147. It is a common device of plays of this time to end a scene with a rhyming couplet, as here. This has been supposed by
some to offer a cue to the opening of a new scene, but as such rhyming tags occur elsewhere this is not certain.
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_1_2.html >.