Character Sketch of Nerissa in Merchant of Venice – ICSE Class 10, 9 English


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A Miniature Portia, Though Without Portia’s Beauty and health

Nerissa is the waiting-maid of Portia; but actually she is more of a companion to Portia than a maidservant. The main point to note about Nerissa is that she possess almost all those qualities which Portia has but possesses those qualities in a much lesser degree. She may almost be regarded as another Portia though on a greatly diminished and reduced scale. In her talk and her actions, she is almost an echo of her mistress. We could even call her an imitation Portia though we certainly do not imply thereby any contempt or scorn for her. In fact, we feel quite attracted by her, and are inclined to have an extremely favourable opinion of her as a person. She is a miniature Portia, though lacking in Portia’s beauty and Portia’s wealth.

Her Capacity to Make Aphoristic Remarks

Nerissa strikes us as a highly intelligent woman who understands Portia’s nature and character well. When we are first introduced to Portia, she (Portia) is in a rather melancholy mood. At this time Nerissa makes some very shrewd remarks by means of which she is able to provide some comfort to her mistress and soothe her troubled mind. She points out to Portia that the latter has every reason to feel happy because of her good fortune, and then she further consoles her by saying that the lottery, which her late father had devised with regard to her marriage, is a sound method by which she would be able to acquire a suitable husband. Here Nerissa also gives evidence of her capacity to speak in an aphoristic* style. For instance, she says that people, who have too much to eat or to enjoy, ultimately feel as sick of their sumptuous food and their wealth as those persons feel who have no wealth at all and no food to eat. She then goes on to say that “It is no mean happiness therefore to be seated in the mean”, meaning that only those persons can be really happy who have neither too much of wealth nor too little of it. She then makes another aphoristic statement when she says: “superfluity comes sooner by white hairs, but competency lives longer.”

Her Sense of Humour; and Her Wit

Nerissa has a strong sense of humour and is capable of making witty remarks just as she is capable of making wise ones. She fully gets into the spirit of Portia’s witty comments on the four suitors who come to Belmont to win her but who go away without venturing to make a choice of the caskets. She also fully enjoys the comedy of the rings conceived and started by Portia. She takes Gratiano to task for having given away her ring to somebody though he had sworn to keep it always with him. She pretends to disbelieve him entirely when he says that he had given the ring not to any woman but to a man who had functioned as the judge’s clerk in the court at Venice. Here she shows her wit by countering Gratiano’s plea, and asserting that he is trying to throw dust into her eyes.

A Copy of Portia; and Well Matched with Gratiano

Nerissa feels very happy at Bassanio’s choice of the right casket; and she offers her best wishes and her congratulations to both Portia and Bassanio. She feels almost as happy at acquiring Gratiano as her husband as Portia feels at acquiring Bassanio as her husband. Portia gets Lord Bassanio as her husband, and Nerissa gets Lord Bassanio’s subordinate, Gratiano, as her husband. If Bassanio had to undergo an ordeal in order to win Portia as his wife, Gratiano too had to undergo some difficulty in winning Portia’s maid as his spouse. Gratiano had to give all sorts of assurances 10 Nerissa, and had to swear his love for her with many oaths, before she agreed to marry him; and, even while giving her consent, she had laid down the condition that she would marry him only if Bassanio succeeded in winning Portia. When Portia decides to put on a man’s disguise, Nerissa too raises no objection to doing the same at Portia’s behest. All these facts only serve to prove the point that she is almost a copy of Portia.

According to a critic, Nerissa is a clever, confidential waiting-woman who has caught something of her mistress’s elegance and romance, and she mimics her mistress with emphasis and discretion. Nerissa and Gratiano, says this critic, are as well matched as the incomparable Portia and her splendid lover.

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