Portia’s companion, Nerissa, had become a close friend since the death of Portia’s father. Apart from a similar sense of humour, their being of the same, marriageable, age gave them a great deal in common and much to talk about. Moreover, the impossible situation Portia’s late father had placed his only child in by the terms of his will, made a close confidant a most valuable asset.
They sat in the hall of Portia’s Belmont villa, trying yet again to make sense of it all. Portia sighed. ‘Honestly, Nerissa,’ she said. ‘My little body is weary of this great world.’
‘You would be, dearest madam, if your miseries were as numerous as your good fortunes,’ said Nerissa, ‘but, the way I see it is that one can be just as sick from over-eating as from starving. So it’s not such a bad thing to be poor. Having too much makes you old before your time: having less gives you a longer life.’
‘A good philosophy and well expressed,’ said Portia.
Nerissa looked around her at the rich furnishings, the priceless paintings, the gold fittings, and smiled. ‘It would be better if that philosophy were followed,’ she said.
‘If it were as easy to do as say,’ said Portia, ‘chapels would be churches and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It’s a good preacher who follows his own preaching! I’d rather teach twenty people what to do than be one of the twenty who had to follow my teaching. The brain tries to make rules for the body but hot passions ignore them. Youth rejects good advice because it gets in the way. But all this rationality isn’t going to help me choose a husband.’ She sighed. ‘Oh dear. That word ‘choose!’ I can neither choose who I want nor reject whom I don’t like. So the will of a living daughter is frustrated by the will of a dead father. Isn’t it hard, Nerissa, that I can neither choose nor refuse?’
‘Your father was a good man and good men often have inspiration on their deathbeds,’ said Nerissa. ‘And so the lottery of the three chests he devised – gold, silver and lead – with you being the reward for choosing the right one – will no doubt ensure that you will love the one who makes the right choice.’ Her mistress raised her eyes in her exasperation and Nerissa laughed. Then she said – provocatively: ‘But what do you feel about those who have come?’
Portia laughed. ‘Oh please, go through their names and as you say them I’ll tell you how I feel about each one.’
They broke into a fit of giggles and when that had subsided Nerissa cleared her throat. ‘First, there’s the Neapolitan prince.’
‘Oh there’s a frisky young colt!’ exclaimed Portia. ‘The only thing he can talk about is his horse and he praises himself for being able to shoe him himself. I can only think that his mother must have had an affair with a blacksmith!’
When they had stopped laughing Nerissa said: ‘Then there’s the Count Palatine.’
‘He does nothing but frown, as if to say, ‘If you won’t have me then do as you please!’ He hears amusing stories but doesn’t even smile. He’ll be really sour in his old-age, as he’s so full of misery in his youth. I’d rather be married to a skull with a bone in its mouth than to either of those. God defend me from those two!’
‘How do you like the French gentleman, Monsieur Le Bon?’
Portia made an exaggeratedly effeminate gesture with her hand. ‘Well!’ she said, ‘God made him so we’ll let him pass for a man. Really! I know it’s not nice to mock, but him! He’s got a horse that’s better than the Neapolitan’s: he frowns better than the Count Palatine. He’s everyone and no-one. If a thrush sings he immediately begins dancing: he wants to fence with his own shadow. If I married him I would be marrying twenty husbands. If he hated me I would forgive him: even if he loved me to distraction I wouldn’t return his love.’
Nerissa raised her hand, showing four fingers. ‘Well then, what about Falconbridge, the English baron?’
Portia pulled a face. ‘You know I haven’t spoken to him. He doesn’t understand me and I don’t understand him. He speaks neither Latin, French nor Italian, and you would be able to swear in court that I’m pretty poor at English. He’s a handsome man but who can converse with a dummy? And how strangely he dresses! I think he bought his waistcoat in Italy, his breeches and stockings in France, his hat in Germany, and his manners everywhere!’
Nerissa held up five fingers. ‘What do you think of his neighbour, the Scottish lord?’
‘That he’s full of neighbourly love, because he took a boxing of his ears by the Englishman and swore he would pay him back as soon as he could. I think the Frenchman sided with him and became his guarantor for another beating!’
Nerissa could hardly contain herself. ‘How do you like the young German?’ she gasped. ‘The Duke of Saxony’s nephew?’
‘Very little in the morning when he’s sober and even less in the evening when he’s drunk. When he’s at his best he’s less than a man and at his worst he’s little better than a beast. If the worst came to the worst I think I could manage without him.’
‘If he decides to choose and he picks the right casket, you would be defying your father’s will if you refused to marry him.’
‘Therefore, to stop the worst from coming to the worst, I beg you to put a large glass of Rhine wine on the wrong casket, because even if the devil is in it, if that temptation is on the outside I know he will choose it. I’ll do anything, Nerissa, rather than marry a sponge!’
Portia’s distress at her predicament seemed to sink in, then, and she looked at her friend with dejected eyes. Nerissa got up and put her arms around her. ‘Madam, you needn’t worry about having any of these men,’ she said gently. ‘They’ve told me their intentions. They’re all going home and won’t trouble you again, unless you can be won by some other means than your father’s imposition of the caskets.’
‘If I should live to be as old as the Sibyl I will die as chaste as Diana unless I’m won in accordance with my father’s will. I’m glad this bunch of wooers is so reasonable: there’s not one of them whose absence I don’t adore. May God grant them a safe journey!’
Nerissa was thoughtful. ‘Do you remember, madam, when your father was alive, a Venetian – a scholar and a soldier – who came here with the Marquis of Montferrat?’
‘Yes, yes! That was Bassanio, I think his name was.’
‘That’s right, madam. Of all the men my foolish eyes have ever gazed upon, he was the most deserving of a beautiful lady.’
‘I remember him well: he deserves your praise.’
Nerissa was about to say something more when a servant approached them.
‘Well? What news?’ said Portia.
‘The visitors are looking for you, madam, to say goodbye. A messenger has arrived from another – the Prince of Morocco – to tell you that his master will be here tonight.’
‘If I could greet him as heartily as I can bid the others farewell, I’d be glad about his arrival,’ said Portia. ‘If he has the character of a saint and the looks of a devil I’d rather he blessed me than married me. Come on Nerissa. Go on ahead of us,’ she told the servant. She sighed. ‘No sooner do we slam the gate on one wooer than another knocks on the door!’