The Casket Scene
The Casket Scene in The Merchant of Venice
Between two literal, but vastly different, trials in The Merchant of Venice the casket trial in Belmont is the more interesting. Unlike the legal trial in Venice, it is fanciful and fairytale-like. The contest for Portia’s hand resembles the cultural and legal system of Venice in some respects. It presents the same opportunities and the same rules to men of various nations, ethnicities, and religions; although the hidden bias is fundamentally Christian.
To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (II.vii.5), and the silver casket, which says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (II.vii.7). The correct casket is lead and warns that the person who chooses it must give and risk everything he has. The contest combines a number of Christian teachings, such as, desire and the senses are unreliable guides and should be resisted, and the idea that appearances are often deceiving - hence the humble appearance of the lead casket. Faith and charity are the central values of Christianity, and these values are evoked by the lead casket’s injunction to give all and risk all, as one does in making a leap of faith. (Portia’s father has presented marriage as one in which the proper suitor risks and gives everything for the spouse, in the hope of a divine recompense he can never truly deserve.) The contest certainly suits Bassanio, who knows he does not deserve his good fortune but is willing to risk everything on a gamble.
The Prince of Morocco, the first of the three suitors, in his anxiety to compensate for the colour of his skin, shows himself to be ashamed and insecure. His character is also proud because he proceeds to defend his skin and boasts about himself. He challenges Portia to compare his blood with the whitest of men to see whose the reddest is. Morocco represents sensual love, a desire for physical pleasures as oppose to those of the mind. This means Morocco judges on outward appearances. The quotation, ‘All that glisters is not gold’ befits his character which is insecure and shallow.
The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon’s arrogance and pride are shown through his choice of casket and his reaction to choosing the wrong casket. He comments on the inscription of gold casket, ‘…I will not jump with common spirits/ And rank me with barbarous multitudes.’ (Act II Scene ix) and thinking gold was too common for him he arrogantly discards it. He does not even stop to contemplate the lead casket saying only that it would have to look more attractive for him to hazard anything for it. The silver casket appeals to him the most because he feels that no one deserving should go unmerited. His arrogance leads him to assume that he is worthy of Portia. His choice indicates that Arragon represents love controlled by intellect not emotion. He was blind to his own arrogance.
Bassanio, the last suitors, is portrayed as neither proud nor arrogant. This contrasts with the attitudes of the other two suitors, as they are full of self-importance. Their purpose amongst others is to make Bassanio appear virtuous. He is significant and by far the most important of the three suitors because Portia actually displays interest for him. Portia plays music in the background perhaps to calm him and soothe him into the right frame of mind so that he may choose correctly. She also tries to delay him in taking the test, ‘…for, in choosing wrong, /I lose your company:’ (Act III Scene ii).
The central idea in the song that is used as background music while Bassanio is making his choice of caskets focuses on the word "fancy." Fancy, for Elizabethans, carried the meaning of whimsical affection. Bassanio picks up on this idea and elaborates on it when he meditates on the way in which "outward shows" mislead or deceive the observer. He extends this perception to law, religion, military honor, and physical beauty.
We are thus reminded of the way in which the Princes of Morocco and Arragon were taken in by the outer appearance of the gold and silver caskets. Bassanio rejects both of these caskets, and his reasons are significant in the total meaning of the play. He calls gold "hard food for Midas"; Midas imagined that gold itself could be something nutritive or lifegiving, and he starved to death for his mistake.