The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 3, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

Portia wants Bassanio to wait a few days before he undertakes her father's challenge, fearing he might choose wrong and be forced to leave her. She believes if she has more time with Bassanio, she can "teach [him] to choose right." Bassanio cannot take the suspense of not knowing his future and insists on accepting the challenge right away. He professes his love for Portia, and Portia hopes his love will guide him to the correct choice among the caskets. Bassanio reasons his way through the challenge, rejecting the gold and silver caskets because "the world is deceived with ornament." He chooses the lead casket and finds Portia's image inside. Both Portia and Bassanio rejoice at this outcome and agree to marry. Portia gives Bassanio a ring. Gratiano reveals his plan to marry Nerissa.

Lorenzo and Jessica arrive with Salerio, who brings Bassanio a message from Venice: Antonio has lost his ships and is now unable to pay Shylock. Bassanio is forced to tell Portia the true state of his finances, but she is not bothered by his confession. She is more concerned with Antonio's welfare. Portia offers any sum necessary to save Antonio's life, even though Salerio tells her Shylock claims he will refuse repayment if offered. Jessica confirms her father's stubbornness, saying he has told her he would "rather have Antonio's flesh/Than twenty times the value of the sum." Portia sends Bassanio back to Venice to help his friend.

Analysis

While an argument can be made, based on Bassanio's focus on Portia's fortunes in Act 1, Scene 1, that his primary interest in Portia is financial, Act 3, Scene 2 helps dispel this possibility. For the first time Bassanio confesses his love for Portia, and he does so in a manner that appears shy and subdued. He describes the delay before he undertakes the challenge as torture, and then "confesses" his love when pressed to do so. Portia's declaration that he will win the challenge if he truly loves her speaks to her confidence in his ability to choose as well as her confidence in her father's judgment, the recent focus of her complaints. Indeed, when Bassanio wins the challenge, he sees almost precisely what Portia's father wanted his future son-in-law to see in the caskets. Bassanio looks at the gold casket and knows not to be deceived by appearances—he even refers to skulls and graves concealed by ornaments. This observation recalls the Prince of Morocco's challenge in Act 2, Scene 7 which revealed the gold casket's contents to be a skull and a letter containing almost the same words Bassanio uses here.

Interestingly, Bassanio's choice of casket is based on the process of elimination. He is well aware of the two caskets he should not choose, but he makes no reference to the inscription on the lead casket that requires him to "give and hazard all he hath." Bassanio does not yet understand the truth of this phrase, so he seems not to notice it. He has sacrificed some to be here, but most of the sacrifices for his love of Portia have actually been made by Antonio who, it seems, has even sacrificed his own life for Bassanio's potential happiness. This reality comes roaring into the happy scene that sees Portia and Bassanio and Nerissa and Gratiano agreeing to marry. Antonio cannot be expected to make the ultimate sacrifice for Portia and Bassanio, which Portia recognizes when she sends her new husband back to Venice.

Of course, it is also possible that Bassanio is only deliberating for show. It may be he noticed Portia's hints about which casket to choose. After all, he has proven himself perceptive where conversational nuance is concerned, as in his recognition of Shylock's threat to Antonio in Act 1, Scene 3. In Portia's first sentence to him in Act 3, Scene 2 she says, "pause a day or two/Before you hazard"—and, although a legitimate synonym for risk, hazard is part of the inscription on the lead casket: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." Her words contain another clue as well; Portia tells Bassanio she has given all of herself to him, implying that he must now give all he has to her.

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