The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 2, Scene 7 | Summary

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Summary

The Prince of Morocco undertakes the challenge left by Portia's father. He is to choose between three "caskets" or chests. One made of gold, one of silver, one of lead. One of the chests contains a portrait of Portia, and if the suitor chooses that chest, he can marry Portia. If he chooses the wrong chest, he goes home in shame. Each chest is inscribed with a hint. The gold one reads "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." The silver one reads "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The lead one reads "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has."

The Prince of Morocco deliberates over the chests and their inscriptions. He finds the lead casket threatening and eliminates it right away. Then he thinks of what he may deserve, but he questions whether that extends to Portia, even though he believes he deserves much. He settles on the golden casket because he believes Portia is the thing many men desire. He also thinks the golden casket is the only one worthy to contain her image, so he chooses gold. When he unlocks the casket he finds a skull and a message cautioning against being seduced by outward appearances—"All that glisters is not gold." He leaves quickly, and Portia expresses relief at his failure.

Analysis

With the inscriptions on the caskets, it becomes apparent that Portia's father has not entrusted his daughter's fate to a game of pure chance. The inscriptions provide clues to the location of her portrait, and the man who can figure out the clues correctly will be the one worthy of Portia's hand. The Prince of Morocco is not that man. He is seduced by the outward appearance of the gold casket, which is an ironic turn of events for a man whose first words in the play are "Mislike me not for my complexion." Even though he met Portia with an entreaty that she not judge him by his outward appearance, the statement also indicates his own preoccupation with outward appearances as evidenced by his choice of casket.

Portia has judged the Prince of Morocco by his appearance as well. When he departs, she says, "Let all his complexion choose me so." Unlike the other suitors she dislikes, the Prince of Morocco is not actually as repellent as the drunken, fighting, inconstant lot that occupies her house. He has no evident character flaws beyond his ego, which is a sufficient reason for Portia to dislike him, but she never notices this. She has been unable to look beyond his complexion from the moment she met him, which is evident from the way her last line mirrors his first. Her prejudice has made her blind to any good points or flaws the prince may actually possess.

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