The Prince of Aragon has sailed to Belmont to win the hand of Portia in marriage by a game of chance. He must choose between three caskets (or chests) one made of gold, one of silver and the other of lead. The game of chance was established by Portia’s father before his death to ensure whoever married his daughter was a worthy husband.
Aragon is one of three suitors to Portia and the second we’ve seen so far. This is his only scene in the play and this monologue represents the majority of his dialogue.
Language and Thought Breakdown
A little trick I used to gain an initial sense of character in a monologue is to read the final word in every line to paint a picture in my head using the imagery. In this case, some of the final words in lines that really stood out to me were: Desire, Show, Teach, Casualty, Spirits, Multitudes, Offices, Honour, Honourable, Deserves, Presume, Choice, Command and this list goes on! The language used by Aragon feels indicative of a person who has an extremely high opinion of himself.
Something else I picked up was Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter and the way he breaks it at times throughout the speech. There are numerous internal full stops or punctuation marks in the middle of lines. Notably, when Aragon says “What many men desire! That ’many’ may be meant by the fool multitude…”. The internal punctuation creates a line of twelve beats and seems to indicate that an actor can really lean on the word ‘many’. Shakespeare has repeated the word and the inverted commas around it indicate that there’s a strong opinion held by Aragon about the multitudes of common people with their shared opinions.
Other occasions where there are twelve beats to a line might be a clue to slow down and really spell out to the audience what is being said. Shakespeare breaks his metre for a purpose and it is often an indication to an actor to lean into the language and imagery of what is being said as it is of great importance.
By going through the text slowly we can get a clear picture about how this character feels about himself versus how he feels about the rest of the world. At one point he goes so far as to tell Portia that she should be better looking if he was to ‘risk all’ and choose the lead casket!
Let’s see if there are any other clues into the character that we can pick up by breaking down the text into thought and beat changes.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
And so have I address’d me. / Fortune now
To my heart’s hope! / Gold; silver; and base lead. /
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’ / (12 Beats)
You shall look fairer, ere I give or hazard. / (F)
What says the golden chest? / ha! let me see: /
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’ / (12 Beats)
What many men desire! / That ‘many’ may be meant (12 Beats)
By the fool multitude, that choose by show, /
Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach; /
Which pries not to the interior, but, like the martlet, / (F)
Builds in the weather on the outward wall, /
Even in the force and road of casualty. /
I will not choose what many men desire, / (F)
Because I will not jump with common spirits (F)
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes. /
Why, then to thee, thou silver treasure-house; /
Tell me once more what title thou dost bear: /
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves:’ / (12 Beats)
And well said too; / for who shall go about
To cozen fortune and be honourable
Without the stamp of merit? / Let none presume
To wear an undeserved dignity. /
O, that estates, degrees and offices
Were not derived corruptly, and that clear honour
Were purchased by the merit of the wearer! /
How many then should cover that stand bare! /
How many be commanded that command! /
How much low peasantry would then be glean’d
From the true seed of honour! / And how much honour (12 beats)
Pick’d from the chaff and ruin of the times
To be new-varnish’d! / Well, but to my choice: /
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.’/ (12 Beats)
I will assume desert. / Give me a key for this, / (12 Beats)
And instantly unlock my fortunes here. /
And so I have prepared myself. Now good luck
Favour the hope of my heart!, Gold, silver and ignoble lead.
‘Who chooses me must give and risk everything he has’.
You’d have to be better looking for me to give or risk anything.
What does the golden chest say? Haha! let me see:
Who chooses me will gain what many men desire.
What many men desire! That ‘many’ might refer
To the foolish masses that choose based on appearance,
Not understanding more than what their foolish eyes tell them;
Which doesn’t see the interior, but, like a bird,
Builds it’s nest on the outer walls,
Exposed to the elements, right in the path of danger.
I won’t choose what many men desire.
Because I will not agree with common people,
And rank myself among the uncivilised majority.
Well then, onto you, you silver treasure chest;
Tell me once again what your inspiration says.
‘Who chooses me will get as much as he deserves’.
And very well said! For who will go about
Cheating good fortune and be honourable
without deserving it! No-one should expect
To have honour if they don’t deserve it.
Oh, if only status and rank, places in office
Weren’t won by corrupt means and that pure honour,
Was obtained based on merit alone!
How many commoners would rise in rank!
How many men would be ordered about rather than giving orders!
How much slavish work would be extracted from,
From the descendants of the noble classes! And how many noble people would be
Created from the throw-aways and dregs of society,
Newly polished! Well, back to my choice.
‘Who chooses me will get as much as he deserves’.
I will assume I am deserving. Give me the key for this,
And immediately unlock my fortune here.
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Fortune: Good luck. Fortune or Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck and good fortune.
Multitude: Masses. In other words ‘a multitude of people’.
Pries: Looks closely.
Martlet: A swift bird or house-martin.
Force: Turbulence or violence.
Casualty: Danger or mischance.
Estates: Degree and rank.
Offices: Places in office, potentially: ‘political positions’.
Clear: Pure or innocent
Cover that stand bare: Common folk would take off their hats in the presence of their social superiors. To keep your hat on around others was a sign of higher social status.
Gleaned: Obtained, extracted, culled, derived.
New-Varnished: Newly adorned or newly polished.
Desert: Deserving. In other words, to ‘claim my worth’.
First of all – I think the clue for this character may be in his name. Aragon. Arrogant. This is a real gift for an actor. Such a wonderful monologue and the Prince of Arragon’s big moment. He must use all of his logic and cunning to decipher the riddle to win Portia’s hand.
I think with this monologue it’s important to remember that despite his strong and seemingly arrogant beliefs, he is really pursuing logic. The reason he is speaking out loud is to help himself work through his thoughts to come to a strong and logical conclusion, and by all accounts, his logic isn’t entirely ridiculous. It just so happens to be very ironic when he says it, or so it would seem and of course we know now that the answer isn’t silver.
For the audience watching the play for the first time, they may not know the answer to the game of chance. Even if they do, there is a joy in watching someone one figure out the answer incorrectly with the dramatic irony of knowing the truth.
As far as I’ve seen, this character is typically played by an older man. However there is nothing in the text to indicate that this must be the case. Aragon is in Spain, a region between Madrid and Barcelona. Anyone who wishes to play the role need only look up this region to understand that anyone one from Aragon could be incredibly wealthy and entitled.
Comedy here can come from certainty. Someone who is too certain they are correct and it shows their arrogance of choice. I would encourage anyone playing this role to really lean into the unbelievably entitled nature of this character using all the imagery of language and bold choices at their disposal. Because when this character’s logic is discovered to be incorrect, it undercuts his entire persona, which is so joyful for an audience to watch – we love seeing a tall poppy cut down. Have fun with this one!