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PORTIA'S SUITORS by Richard Kuhns and Barbara Tovey I am always inclined to believe that Shakespeare has more allusions to particular facts and persons than his readers commonly suppose. —Samuel Johnson, "Merchant of Venice," Notes on Shakespeare's Plays. 66f\ver-name them," Portia says to Nerissa, "and as thou namest V^/them, I will describe them, and according to my description level at my affection." This passage in TL· Merchant of Venice (Act I, Scene ii), where Portia describes her suitors, presents certain problems.1 To our knowledge interpreters have not addressed them. In the first place, the lengthy description ofthe discarded suitors serves no apparent function. The suitors play no role whatsoever in the subsequent development of the drama, and the protracted account of their failings retards rather than advances the action of the play. To be sure, Shakespeare wanted die audience to be aware that Portia had many suitors of high rank and from many different countries, but it was scarcely necessary for him to go to such lengths to make the point. In the second place, the denigration of the previous suitors in this scene does not accord with the account ofthem given by Bassanio when talking to Antonio in the first act: Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth, For the four winds blow in from every coast Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks 325 326Philosophy and Literature Hang on her temples like a golden fleece, Which makes her seat of Belmont Colchos' strond, And many Jasons come in quest of her. (Li. 167-72) The suitors as described by Portia hardly deserve to be called "renowned ," or to be referred to as "Jasons." The belittling of his competitors in this scene also has the undesirable effect of trivializing Bassanio 's achievement in Act III. Thirdly, there is something decidedly odd about the sort of failings attributed to the suitors by Portia. Had he so wished, Shakespeare could have utilized this passage to present a sort of catalogue of human frailties. One suitor might have been a representative of pride, another of avarice, another of envy, etc. But Shakespeare does nothing of the sort. With the exception of the German, who is a drunkard, the defects of the suitors can hardly be considered major vices. The Neapolitan Prince talks too much about his horse, the County Palatine frowns excessively, the French lord is an imitator of the others, the English baron is "oddly suited," and so on. Yet Shakespeare dwells at considerable length upon these more or less trivial failings. Now it may be suggested that Shakespeare, who is certainly deeply interested in national differences of character and behavior, may have inserted this discussion of the suitors into the play in order to provide himself with an opportunity for analysis of idiosyncratic national traits. The answer to this objection is simple. The characteristics ascribed to the suitors do not represent genuine or interesting national differences any more than they stand for major human vices. Is it true, as under this hypothesis Shakespeare would seem to be suggesting, that Neapolitans are fonder of horses than most other folk? Or that Frenchmen are particularly prone to imitating others? Or that Germans are uniquely predisposed to alcoholism? If not, we must admit that the discussion of the discarded suitors represents a puzzling and as yet unexplained digression. Commenting upon this scene, Samuel Johnson made a suggestion that we think merits serious consideration. Might it be the case that the suitors represent actual persons, whose descriptions give clues to their real identities? It is our suggestion that the six suitors make up a company of the most gifted, influential, and to Shakespeare—we suspect—the most interesting writers of the tradition in which he worked. These are the writers from whom he derived inspiration and plots. The question may Richard Kuhns and Barbara Tovey327 well be raised, as to why, if this is so, the suitors are depicted in such derogatory terms. We suggest that one very potent way in which to express the deepest gratitude and admiration is by means of a loving insult. This technique ofexpressing affection and indebtedness to one's literary mentors...


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