At her estate in Belmont, near Venice, Portia complains to her servant Nerissa that she's "aweary of this great world" (1.2.1–2). Nerissa observes that to be rich and have everything, as Portia does, is just as depressing as having nothing: it would be better if she could choose to live a more moderate, ordinary life.
Portia replies that in fact she's frustrated by her total lack of control over her romantic situation. Portia and Nerissa discuss this situation: Portia's dead father specified in his will that she couldn't choose her own husband. Instead, when he died, Portia's father left behind a riddle. Anyone who wants to marry Portia must choose one of three "caskets" (chests), each marked with a clue. One is made of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Only the man who chooses the correct casket can take Portia as his bride.
Portia has more concrete grounds for being depressed: her father's will has entrapped her in a legal contract that leaves her with no control over her love life. The will gambles her whole fate on the—as yet, mysterious—riddle of the caskets, which her suitors must interpret.
Nerissa asks what Portia thinks of the foreign princes who have come to woo her so far. Nerissa lists their names, and Portia mocks them one by one. The Neapolitan? He reminds her of a horse. The prince from Palatine? Humorless. The Frenchman? Boring. The British Baron? Too ignorant even to speak to Portia, knowing neither Latin, Italian, nor French—and badly dressed, to boot! The Scottish lord? Didn't even have enough money to come on his own; he had to borrow from the Englishman. The German Duke's nephew? A drunk who is "little better than a beast" (1.2.89). Nerissa observes that, in any case, Portia is safe because none of these suitors has agreed to try his hand at the riddle. Portia resolves, in turn, that, despite her frustration, she will obey her father's decree.
Portia's speeches show that she's witty and self-possessed, but also cruel and prejudiced—as well as materialistic, on occasion (for instance, when she rejects the Scottish lord for not having enough money). Dismissing her German suitor as a "beast," she also makes the first of a number of animal insults that occur throughout the play, usually applied to Shylock and used by the Venetians to question the humanity of Jews. Yet, despite her frustration, Portia will remain within the legal framework willed to her.
Nerissa asks Portia whether she remembers a Venetian man who once came—Bassanio. Portia does, fondly. Just then, a servant enters. He informs Portia that the suitors who have been at Belmont are departing and that the Prince of Morocco is coming that night. Portia remarks that she's happy to see the others go, but that she would rather be murdered than marry a man with the "complexion of a devil."
For the first time Nerissa and Portia show some hopefulness about a prospective suitor. But, confronted with the prospect of Morocco, Portia again demonstrates her bleak outlook about her marriage. She also gives a hint of ethnic prejudices she will later reveal more fully.