Although the play’s title leads readers to believe its contents to surround Antonio, rather the play surrounds a hated and despised Shylock the Jew. However, as Shakespeare so often does, several scenes are placed almost haphazardly within the conflict and turmoil building amongst the main characters. Often readers question the scenes appropriateness and necessity to the play’s progression, and struggle to create connections to the play’s main conflict and following resolution. The casket scenes regarding the betrothal of the beautiful Portia in The Merchant of Venice play the role of the sources of confusion.
Although the game of caskets seemingly represents Shakespeare’s dynamics on love and marriage, the game is really a lesson in human morality, judgment, and tribulations. The lesson learned through Portia’s three suitors is invaluable to the play as well as human life. Shakespeare’s ability to recognize and understand the true nature of man is seen throughout the works of his career, and The Merchant of Venice is in essence a depiction of men judging one another superficially. The three caskets present three versions of common human rationales.
As each suitor presents himself for the game, the audience is led through his thought process and ultimate decision. The first suitor, Morocco, refuses the casket of lead and claims “[a] gold mind stoops not to shows of dross. / I’ll then [neither] give nor hazard [anything] for lead” (2. 7. 20-21). Morocco will not risk anything for the mere hopes of gaining only as valuable as lead. Morocco, so far, is immensely materialistic. He next contemplates the silver casket. Morocco weighs his “value with an even hand” and decides his worth “by thy estimation / […] dost deserve enough” (2. 7. 5, 26-27).
Morocco’s own self-affirmation does not allow him to stoop to choose silver. Instead, he moves to the golden casket thus furthering his obvious greedy and materialistic nature. “Is’t like that lead contains her? ‘Twere damnation / [to] think so base a thought. It [is] too gross / [to] rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave” (2. 7. 49-51). Obviously unbeknownst to Morocco, lead is the metal of choice in burial, and the irony only better proves this suitor unfit. Likewise Morocco did not view silver as more precious than gold, and refuses to settle for anything second best.
His vanity and greed leave him “ ‘[c]old indeed, and labor lost’” as he unwisely chooses the golden casket, and a lesson in humility and Christian grace is spent (2. 7. 74). The lessons continue with the second suitor, Aragon. He quickly passes the leaden casket and moves to dismiss any affinity toward the golden casket. “I will not choose what many men desire, / Because I will not jump with common spirits / And rand me with the barbarous multitudes” (2. 9. 30-32). Wisely, Aragon knows not to simply trust the facts beheld by the eyes.
He deciphers the riddle as addressing a throng of fools blinded by beauty and oblivious of anything else. However, Aragon has just all but ignored the lead casket, yet he knows “[Portia] shall look fairer [if he] give or hazard” (2. 9. 21). Aragon knows a risk begets a better reward, but he does not choose this uncertainty. However, he ascertains his own desert without doubt. The silver casket should “[let] none presume / to wear an undeserved dignity” and Aragon believes men should only receive what is deserved (2. 9. 38-39).
He questions the validity of an idealistic world of rightful desert. He wonders “who shall go about / [to cheat] fortune, and be honourable / [without] the stamp of merit” (2. 9. 36-37). Aragon’s idealism does not consider the true nature of mankind. His rationality is absurdly naive, and this foolishness is all he keeps upon his departure. Bassanio, the final and probably least sincere suitor, also considers each casket before his decision. Bassanio is well aware how sinful and deceitful mankind behaves.
He knows “the outward shows [appearances] be least themselves” (3. . 73). Now the reader knows outward beauties will not fool Bassanio. “How many cowards whose hearts are all as false / [as] stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins / [the] beards of Hercules and fwoning mars, / [who], inward searched, have lives white as milk” (3. 2. 83-86) Bassanio asks himself in debate. The readers know Bassanio has spent his fortunes living an extravagant life. Assumedly, Bassanio encountered a vast variety of people in his travels and adventures, and through these experiences, he has discovered the triviality of appearances.
Bassanio knows beauty is often an elaborate mask “[the] seeming truth [in] cunning times puts on / [to] entrap the wisest” (3. 2. 100-101). Bassanio eliminate his doubt and chooses the lead casket, thus ending the game and winning Portia’s hand. Bassanio’s knowledge of men and their sinfully corrupt hearts leads him to wisely solve the riddle and win the desired prize. However, Bassanio is not meant to serve as the moral winner in this game. Instead, Bassanio provides support toward Aragon’s foolishness.
Bassanio is the man who undeservedly gains power and advancement. Shakespeare places these scenes within a play full of the corrupt, yet he is able to humanize and evoke sympathy for these men. Shakespeare utilizes these scenes to relay to the audience that human nature is not black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. The bad can feel the good and be intrinsically good; likewise the good often know the bad and choose the evil in the face of personal gain.
Courtney from Study Moose
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