Love Through Lottery:
A Study of the Caskets, Act 2, Sc. 7, The Merchant of Venice
The caskets left by Portia’s father as the test of fidelity and suitability of suitors are not so unusual in literary works of Shakespeare’s time and before. In fact, many works exist in which the suitor has to prove his worth either through physical exploits or some other measure. To the Elizabethan audience then, the presence of these caskets was in keeping with their expectations. The young man who gets the girl must emerge as heroic and worthy. This adds to the excitement of the scenes.
The choice of test might have been unorthodox but has added more weight to the brilliance of the playwright. Shakespeare conjured up a situation where the caskets chosen were of different metals. The first two were of gold and silver respectively while the last was of dull lead. Man has always regarded metals as precious, semi-precious or base as a consequence of their quality and usefulness. The glitter of some naturally caused men to adorn themselves with these. Some like gold and silver stood out in this regard and became valuable also as currency. Beauty and wealth have, therefore, become associated with these two metals. Lead on the other hand is heavy and dull and not malleable enough to be fashioned into jewellery. Given these facts, one can see how the gold and silver provided the perfect distracters in this objective type test.
The fact that the correct choice was the lead casket forces us to consider the true intent of the father. The decision/ the true choice had to be arrived at through moral determiners and nothing more – not the attractiveness, the promise of wealth which the outer wrappings of the first two caskets represent at the mere physical, concrete level - the one that says what you see is what you get. As the scroll from the gold casket declares, “ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT GOLD” and “Gilded tombs do worms infold.” So the choice had to be made from deeper more genuine considerations. This also raises the question of what constitutes true love. Is it the mere outward, physical factors or should it go beyond that? The true, most suitable young man for this prize - Portia – had to operate ‘outside of the box’. But what of the inscriptions on the caskets? Were they intended to help or hinder the process? “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” Thus reads the writing on the gold casket. Recognize ambiguity in meaning? Was this purposefully done to complicate the matter? What does many men desire? Taken from a universal perspective, not confined to any specific point in time or era, the answer would invariably be wealth and the gold supports or suggests that view to be correct. Stopping there would, however, be limiting because the other possibility was that many men were running after Portia – many men desire her. That was a valid consideration too. Thus the plight of the suitors! Thus the trap into which The Prince of Morocco fell. At face value, this was it. Portia had the wealth and she was pursued by many.
The second, the silver casket, declares: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” This immediately raises the question should a man be satisfied with just what he deserves? In the Elizabethan context where Christianity and Christian moral principles were more evident as the measure of their actions and behavior than now, it might have been prudent to act upon the Christian principles of temperance, modesty and contentedness. But the statement also implies that Portia is well deserving to any well-thinking, well-disposed young man. The catch is the interpretation depends on how the suitor saw himself and what he thinks he deserves. To go through the trouble of getting there and submitting to the challenge would suggest all would think of themselves as deserving.
Finally, the lead casket is inscribed with the words, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Immediately this is unattractive. These words do not in any way serve to encourage. They call upon the suitor to give and risk all that he had without expecting anything in return. They suggest selflessness. Of course, they demonstrate also that Portia’s father was indeed wise and prudent; he knew human nature that very few of us are ever willing to give all that we have even if it is in the name of love.
These caskets, or the process, though hated by Portia were significant and important to preserving her well-being as well as her wealth. So well maneuvered were the plans that none but an honest, selfless and worthy young man would choose right in this lottery. That exactly was what the father desired. In a real sense then, the test reveals the true character of the Prince of Morocco as well as the all the others; it brings to the fore the very depths of each suitor's self. How they see themselves translates onto the choice each makes.
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