Using three thousand ducats borrowed from Shylock, Bassanio makes the journey from Venice to Belmont in order to win the hand of the very wealthy Portia. However, Bassanio must win her by strange means: a choice between three caskets.
Upon his death, Portia’s father established a rule in his will, to which Portia is bound. The rule states that anybody who desires Portia’s hand in marriage must travel to Belmont and undergo a test: A choice between three caskets; gold, silver and lead. The correct casket holds a picture of Portia’s face. Whoever chooses correctly, shall win her hand, however, if they choose incorrectly – they must leave Belmont and and swear to live the rest of their lives as a bachelor.
Two suitors, the Prince of Morocco and the Price of Aragon have already tried and failed to choose correctly – believing that certainly one so beautiful should be housed in a chest of either gold or silver. Enter Bassanio and his friend Gratiano, who has his own eyes set on Nerissa, Portia’s close friend and servant.
Portia pleads with Bassanio to take time before making his choice, “I pray you tarry, pause a day or two before you hazard, for in choosing wrong, I lose your company”. However, Bassanio is set on trying his hand and refuses to wait any longer. He decides to risk all then and there on choosing the correct casket.
Portia’s final words to Bassanio before he chooses begin with: “Away then, I am locked in one of them. If you do love me, you will find me out”. The stakes are as high as possible. Choose correctly and Bassanio wins Portia, her love and money and thus the the ability to pay back the debt to Shylock. Fail, and he must leave Belmont, penniless, without Portia, without love and under oath never to marry anybody else.
Bassanio begins the monologue with a theory. And then spends the rest of the time trying to prove that theory correct – which he does.
Beat Change: Space
Thought Change: /
So may the outward shows be least themselves: /
The world is still deceived with ornament. /
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt, /
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? / In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament? /
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts: /
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars; /
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk. /
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted! /
Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight; /
Which therein works a miracle in nature, /
Making them lightest that wear most of it: /
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind, /
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head, /
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre. /
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; / the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; / in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. /
Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee; /
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
‘Tween man and man: / but thou, thou meagre lead, /
Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught, /
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence; /
And here choose I; joy be the consequence! /
Appearances may be deceiving,
The world is always deceived by beauty.
In court, when a false claim is made,
But being spoken by a charming person,
Can hide the evil behind it. In religion,
When a mortal sin is committed, but a clergyman
Blesses it and supports it with a bible verse
Hides the wrongdoing with a holy appearance.
No matter how small the vice,
They all take on an outward appearance of virtue:
How many cowards whose hearts are all as weak,
As stairs made from sand wear on their faces
The beards of heroes and gods,
When on the inside they’re gutless weaklings.
And these people put on facial hair
To make themselves look fearsome and revered.
Look at beauty,
You can see cosmetics can be bought by the ounce,
Which makes a miracle of ugliness
Turning people promiscuous who wear the most of it.
Same as that beautiful tightly-curled hair
That flows gently in the breeze,
Often called beautiful but not commonly known to be
A gifted wig taken from the head of someone else,
A dead person who grew it in a tomb.
So beauty is just the calm deceptive beach,
That leads to a dangerous ocean, the attractive scarf
That hides a dark skinned ‘beauty’. In short –
The appearance of truth which often deceives
Trapping the wisest of people.
So, you extravagant gold,
Food for Midas, I’ll have nothing to do with you,
Nor nothing to do with you, you pale and common messenger,
Between two men, but you, you most humble lead,
Which actually is rather threatening than promising,
You paleness moves me more than I can express in words,
So I choose here; may happiness be the outcome!
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases.
Still: Always, forever.
Ornament: Beauty or a spotless outward appearance.
Plea: A court request, an appeal etc.
Gracious: Charming, pleasant.
Sober brow: A solemn clergyman or pastor.
Grossness: Sin or flagrant error.
Hercules: Ancient Greek Demi-god and hero.
Frowning Mars: The Roman god of war.
Livers white as milk: Liver was thought to be where courage resided. A cowards liver was white from lack of blood.
Excrement: Beards or facial hair. Double meaning with ‘waste matter’ as their facial hair ruse is all “BS”.
Redoubted: Fearful, Dreaded.
Lightest: Most sexually promiscuous or frivolous.
Crisped snaky golden locks: Long blonde tight-curled hair.
Wanton: Salacious, wild, playful.
Fairness: Bright beauty.
Dowry: The property or money brought into a marriage by the family of the wife upon marriage.
Guiled: Deceptive, deceiving.
Indian: Dark skinned person. This is an example of the racism occurring in Shakespeare’s time. In England, it was considered beautiful to have a light skinned complexion.
Midas: The Phrygian King who prayed that every object he touch would turn to gold. A tragic figure who’s wish came true, turning his daughter into a statue of gold.
Common drudge: A lowborn servant or messenger used in transactions to communicate between two business people.
Meagre: Modest, humble.
The drama of this monologue lies in the stakes of the scene – it’s all or nothing. We begin with Bassanio presenting a theory in his opening statement – that you cannot judge a book by its cover. Then he leads us through a plethora of examples about why this statement is true.
For me, the joy for the audience lies in how Bassanio presents his argument and comes to making his decision. His thoughts appear very rational and coherent and his argument is very clearly expressed.
So what are the choices an actor can make here?
I think if Bassanio enters the scene knowing the answer is one hundred percent going to be lead, it detracts from the drama. With Shakespeare, I’m always aiming for the highest stakes choice.
The answer then, lies in the ‘how’. How does Bassanio decide on lead? What is the argument? How certain is he? Is he certain at all? Is he just guessing? How does he figure it out? These questions are all at the discretion of the actor.
Even after Bassanio confirms his own belief, making numerous cases, his final line still sounds uncertain; “joy be the consequence”. The use of the word ‘consequence’ carries a sense of foreboding.
Something interesting to note: there is a song is sung by a servant (sometimes by Portia), while Bassanio makes his choice. The opening lyrics are:
Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Notice that the end of each line is a word that rhymes with lead? Could this have been a purposeful clue for Bassanio? It’s up for interpretation and debate.
This is such an interesting monologue to perform because of the challenge it poses. Remember: everyone knows the information except for Bassanio and Gratiano.
Portia, Nerissa (and of course the audience!) have all watched two men already try and fail. Therefore what makes it interesting is understanding the stakes of the choice and figuring out how Bassanio makes his decision.