The Prince of Morocco is one of numerous suitors to Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Morocco has sailed for Belmont to win Portia’s hand in marriage at a game of chance, established by Portia’s father before his death to ensure whoever marries his daughter is a worthy husband.
Morocco must choose between three caskets (chests); one made of gold, one of silver and the other of lead. One of the caskets contains a picture of Portia’s face. If he chooses correctly, Morocco will win Portia’s hand in marriage. If his choice is incorrect, he must vow to leave Belmont immediately and live the rest of his life as a bachelor.
Text and Thought Breakdown
The first thing that I noticed about this monologue is the punctuation- there is a lot of it! Full of exclamations and rhetorical questions, this seems to be a very animated piece of text and therefore, an animated character.
Something else that caught my attention is the rhythm. As with much of Shakespeare’s work, the monologue is in iambic pentameter and you’ll notice immediately when Shakespeare breaks his ten-beat-per-line rhythm. Notably, when Morocco asks, “What says this leaden casket”? After this line, there is a four beat pause and an actor may choose to fill in this time however they please. It’s little clues like this that indicate that Shakespeare is giving an actor the freedom to play.
Also take note of the rhythm when it is entirely thrown out the window on the reading of the inscriptions: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. This line has twelve beats in it. Make what you will of that but I’d take it as an opportunity to slow down and really spell them out to the audience as Morocco jumps straight back into a regular iambic rhythm immediately after he finishes reading.
Lastly I would like to draw your attention to Feminine endings. Particularly “As much as he deserves! Pause there, Morocco”. A Feminine ending can sometimes indicate that a line may be of higher emotional stakes or great metaphor. In this case, it is Morocco speaking to himself going on to say ‘slow down there, Morocco and weigh up your own self worth fairly’! A funny character trait. However after this point, there is a flurry of Feminine endings which perhaps indicates a certain level of emotional intent.
Let’s take a closer look at the text to see what other clues might be revealed.
Thought Change: /
Beat Change: Space
Feminine Ending: (F)
The Prince of Morocco:
Some god direct my judgment! / Let me see; /
I will survey the inscriptions back again. /
What says this leaden casket? /
‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.’ / (12 Beats)
Must give: for what? for lead? hazard for lead? /
This casket threatens. / Men that hazard all
Do it in hope of fair advantages: /
A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross; /
I’ll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead. /
What says the silver with her virgin hue? /
‘Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.’ / (12 Beats)
As much as he deserves! / Pause there, Morocco, / (F)
And weigh thy value with an even hand: /
If thou be’st rated by thy estimation, / (F)
Thou dost deserve enough; / and yet enough
May not extend so far as to the lady: / (F)
And yet to be afeard of my deserving (F)
Were but a weak disabling of myself. /
As much as I deserve! / Why, that’s the lady: / (F)
I do in birth deserve her, and in fortunes, / (F)
In graces and in qualities of breeding; / (F)
But more than these, in love I do deserve. /
What if I stray’d no further, but chose here? /
Let’s see once more this saying graved in gold
‘Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.’ / (12 Beats)
Why, that’s the lady; all the world desires her; / (F)
From the four corners of the earth they come, /
To kiss this shrine, this mortal-breathing saint: /
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as thoroughfares now
For princes to come view fair Portia: /
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, / but they come,
As o’er a brook, to see fair Portia. /
One of these three contains her heavenly picture. / (F)
Is’t like that lead contains her? / ‘Twere damnation (F)
To think so base a thought: / it were too gross
To rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave. /
Or shall I think in silver she’s immured, /
Being ten times undervalued to tried gold? /
O sinful thought! / Never so rich a gem
Was set in worse than gold. / They have in England (F)
A coin that bears the figure of an angel (F)
Stamped in gold, but that’s insculped upon; /
But here an angel in a golden bed
Lies all within. / Deliver me the key:
Here do I choose, and thrive I as I may! /
Some god, help my judgment! Let me see,
I will look at the inscriptions again.
What does the lead casket say?
‘Whoever chooses me must give and risk everything he has’?
Must give? Give for what? For Lead? Risk everything for lead?
This chest is dangerous. Men that risk everything,
Do it hoping for a great reward,
A golden mind won’t bend down for something worthless.
Therefore I won’t give or risk anything for lead.
What does the silver casket say with its virginal colour?
‘Who chooses me will get as much as he deserves’.
As much as he deserves! Slow down there, Morocco,
And contemplate your own value fairly.
If I rate myself, by my own calculation,
I indeed deserve plenty, but plenty
Might not be enough to deserve Portia.
And yet being afraid of what I deserve,
I am only belittling myself.
‘As much as I deserve’. Well that is Portia!
By noble birth I deserve her, and and in wealth,
In charm and qualities of my upbringing,
But more than all of that, I deserve her in love.
What if I looked no further but chose here?
Let me look over the inscription carved in gold one more time.
‘Who chooses me shall gain what many men desire.’
Well that’s Portia! The entire world desires her;
From the four corners of the earth they come,
To kiss this sacred woman, this living saint.
The Persian deserts and the wilderness
Of vast Arabia are like highways now,
For princes to come to see beautiful Portia:
The sea, whose waves,
Spray so high they reach the heavens, are no stop,
To the courageous foreign men, who step
Over it as if it were a little creek, to see beautiful Portia.
One of these caskets contains her angelic picture.
Is it likely that lead contains it? It is damnation
To think so vile a thought. It is too inferior and earthly
To enclose her shroud in this dark metal grave.
Or do I think she is enclosed in the silver casket,
Although it is ten times less valuable than gold?
What an evil thought! Never was such a precious jewel,
Fixed onto material worse than gold. In England, they have
A coin that has the picture of an angel engraved on it;
But here is an angel in a golden bed,
Laying inside the casket. Give me the key:
Here do I choose, I hope I am prosperous!
Unfamiliar Words & Phrases
Virgin Hue: The moon whose colour is said to be silver was ruled by Diana, the goddess representative of chastity.
Estimation: One’s reputation or their value. In others words, their rate.
Disabling: Belittling or doings yourself a disservice.
Mortal Breathing: Mortal or Human. In other words, living.
Hyrcanian Deserts: Part of Persia south of the Caspian Sea.
Watery Kingdom: The Sea or Ocean.
Ambitious Head: Oceans waves.
Spirits: Courageous men.
Rib: Enclose; in the same way that our ribs enclose our internal organs.
Cerecloth: A winding sheet or shroud used in burial.
Obscure: Concealed and dark material.
Set: Fixed; like a gem stone set into a ring.
Angel: Archangel Michael appeared on coins. Could also possibly be a nod to Queen Elizabeth I watching the performance, whose face may have also been printed on coins.
“Some god direct my judgement”! Right from the opening line – there is a huge sense of the stakes and potential for comedy in this scene. This is highlighted by the brilliant way in which Morocco wills himself to slow down and choose carefully, “Pause there Morocco and weigh thy value with an even hand”.
To reiterate just how high the stakes are, I want to point out what might easily be forgotten about this scene. If a suitor chooses correctly, they win not only Portia’s hand in marriage, but they inherit her extraordinary wealth. However, if they fail – they must swear an oath to live the rest of their lives as a bachelor. Therefore choosing correctly means a gigantic leap in fortune, both monetarily and in a spouse. Although if they fail in choosing correctly, they can never marry anyone else! In this sense, I too would be calling for any god to help me!
Something to keep in mind if you decide to take on this monologue is that it comes with complex racial politics to understand and negotiate as an actor. This character has been played in many different ways and there is certainly a stereotype that is able to be drawn from the language off the page. Some scholars have argued that the opening line of the speech and indeed, the entire character could be considered racially insensitive.
With this in mind, as an actor, my advice is to lean into the truth of the speech as much as the comedy. While being funny in a comedic play is important, I believe serving the character and the story comes first. Lean into the truth of what Morocco is suggesting about himself. Besides all of the boasts of wealth, an educated upbringing with a royal bloodline, as a human being, Morocco is as deserving in love as Portia is: “but more than these, in love I do deserve”. This, I think, is the heart of the monologue. Aside from everything else, he is just a young man on a quest for love.
If you want to do further reading on this character I encourage you to look into him. There are many essays and articles online that you could refer to. I hope you enjoy it!