Why Bassanio Deserves To Win The Casket

Essay, Research Paper

Why Bassanio Deserves to Win the Casket Test

does he love her for herself or for the opportunity she offers him to

renew his wasted estate? The other main characters are tried by

events; Bassanio only passes a multiple-choice test. Nerissa, making the best of Portia’s predicament, observes that the right casket “will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but one you shall rightly

love.” And as Bassanio hastens to his choice, Portia remarks,

“If you do love me, you will find me out.” We may assume the

test’s validity as given.

But for hostile critics some extratextual evidence of

Bassanio’s worthiness may be necessary. First let us admit that

in the fairy-tale world to which Belmont is often said to belong,

the fair lady’s fortune is always a given, having no other

signification than a reward for virtue. Let us further

acknowledge that in the real world of Elizabeth, an impecunious

young lord had no choice but to choose his partner from the

available heiresses. We will entirely miss the point if we

approach this marriage with our post-Romantic notions of

individual free choice and true love; these are not the ways of

this world. Among availabe heiresses, Portia is obviously a

precious treasure: high mettled like “Brutus’s Portia,” virtu-

ous, beautiful, _and_ rich. Bassanio is no mean catch either:

he is a peer of the realm (some thirty times he is “Lord

Bassanio,” “my lord,” “your lordship,” “your worship,” and “your

honor”). But he requires wealth to do justice to his title.


At a time when relationships were everything and money

nothing, Bassanio’s reckless expenditures, so painful to modern

sensibilities, would have been seen as a virtue. He is what

Aristotle calls a “Great Soul,” one who has no attachment to

worldly goods, who is fond of conferring benefits on others, for

whom spending money is an art (”Magnificence”), and who spends

“gladly and lavishly, since nice calculation is shabby.” _De

Officiis_ declares that “There is nothing more honorable and

noble than to be indifferent to money.” For him, money is a

non-thing, a drudge for moving goods from one person to another,

but never an end in itself. It has no more value than the water

that carries the merchant’s cargo, and we should “deny no one the

water that flows by.”

Bassanio is introduced as one who has “disabled [his]

estate/By something showing a more swelling port/Than [his] faint

means would grant continuance.” In dire financial straits, he

expensively feasts his friends and plans to entertain them with a

masque. He undertakes to “hold a rival” place with Portia’s

other suitors, both princes, and he therefore brings “gifts of

rich value” to Belmont. He does not apologize for the “noble

rate” of his expenditures; he trusts his luck.

Later on, in another part of _The Merchant_, Jessica echoes

Bassanio’s prodigality, when she wastes away her little casket of

gold and jewels at a rate of fourscore ducats a night and trades

her father’s wedding ring for a monkey, just to celebrate her


And Portia knows precisely what kind of a man she is

getting. Bassanio “freely” told her, on his first visit to

Belmont, that all the wealth he had “ran in [his] veins,” that

his “state was nothing,” but that didn’t stop her from issuing a

second invitation. She knows that he is “a scholar and a

soldier.” He has had a good education. His military service is

an even better recommendation, for, according to the leading

authority on the subject, “the principal and true profession of a

Courtier ought to be in feats of arms.” And he is well-

connected, too, for he first came to Belmont “in the company of

the Marquis of Montferrat.” The Marquisate of Montferrat

belonged to the illustrious princely house of Gonzaga. Three

Gonzagas participated in the dialogue of which _The Courtier_

consisted, The Lady Elizabeth Gonzaga in the chair. Thus Nerissa

can say without reservation, “He, of all men that ever my foolish

eyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady.” On this

topic Cicero quotes Themistocles’ wishes for his daughter: “For

my part, I prefer a man without money to money without a man.”

When wealth is subject to fortune, a good man is a better bet.

Portia has plenty of money; what she lacks is a man. In truth,

if Bassanio passes her father’s test, he is as big a catch for

her as she is for him.


To understand the casket test one must imagine some of the

consequences of a living in a highly entropic world. In the

first line of the play, Antonio says, “I know not why I am so

sad.” The second scene shifts us to Belmont, and Portia says,

“By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this great

world.” In the beginning, we find the characters on whom the two

main actions hinge, one in Venice and one in Belmont, in a state

of limbo. Antonio knows only that he is about to play a part,

and that a sad one. Portia knows only that she is about to be

sacrificed to the first man who picks up the right casket. Much

more than it does today, fortune ruled Shakespeare’s world. In

these two scenes Shakespeare gives us existential experience of

what it’s like to be helpless in the hands of forces beyond one’s


Recognizing the part played by fortune was once a moral

imperative. A basic premise of Stoicism is that Fortune controls

everything but one’s body and one’s will (Epictetus); by giving

up any hope of controlling the future and putting will in charge

of body, one can make the best of the options still open. Our

premise at the end of the 20th century is the reverse. By taking

charge of Fortune–by engaging in scientific and medical

research, passing laws, making studies, forecasting natural

disasters, averting diseases, installing air bags, taking

courses, and preventing war–we can manage to control the

direction of our lives, keep what we earn, and look forward to a

full and rewarding career. This is not reality according to _De

Officiis_, which cries out,

Who fails to comprehend the enormous, two-fold power of

Fortune for weal and for woe? When we enjoy her favouring

breeze, we are wafted over to the wished-for haven; when she

blows against us, we are dashed to destruction.

Antonio explodes:

Now, with Antonio’s lecture to Shylock firmly in mind we are

able to decipher the riddle of the caskets. The first two

suitors lose because they are afraid to lose; like Shylock they

take too many pains to assure success. When one begins to rely

on outcomes subject to Fortune, according to Seneca, “there

follows a life of anxiety, suspicion, and alarm, a dread of

mishap and worry over the changes time brings.” “This is the

depth of servitude.” The overly cautious approach comes through

best in Arragon’s deliberations. “Who chooseth me shall get as

much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. True, Arragon

bethinks himself, there are those who manage somehow to cheat or

“cozen fortune” and get honor without meriting it. Not my case,

he thinks. “I shall assume desert,” he says, and picks the

silver casket, containing, not Portia’s picture but that of a

blinking idiot. It was a foolish mistake, because by assuming

desert he _does_ try “to cozen fortune,” to force her hand, doing

exactly what he has just finished saying shouldn’t be done. If

she can be cozened, she isn’t fortune.

However much honor may be deserved, one cannot earn it, one

cannot honor oneself. Arragon asks for “as much as he deserves”

and gets exactly that much. “To offend and judge are distinct

offices,” observes Portia, tartly. One can’t be a judge in his

own cause. The scroll inside the casket confirms her opinion:

“Seven times tried that judgment is/That never did choose amiss.”

Justice is arbitrary and unreliable. That’s why, as Portia

reminds us later in the courtroom, “In the course of justice/None

of us should see salvation.” Don’t ever depend on justice.

Morocco, too, assumes desert, but fixing on the negative side of

Arragon’s argument, that desert is too often unrewarded, chooses

what looks like a sure thing, the gold casket. Nothing is as

gold as gold.

The first two suitors try to “cozen fortune” by deciphering

the clues (the metals and the mottos) on the surface of the

caskets. Portia calls them “deliberate fools” because they work

so hard at destroying themselves. Neither considers the lead

casket; why hazard all for lead? But they worry themselves over

the gold and silver caskets almost as much as Shylock does over

the loan to Antonio. In truth their “native hue of resolution/Is

[like Hamlet's] sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.”


Bassanio doesn’t agonize over the mottos or the metals. If

Portia hadn’t held him back, he would have gone directly to the

lead casket. “Let me choose,” he protests, and later “Let me to

my fortune and the caskets.” Relishing risk rather than seeking

to escape from it, admitting his mortality, realizing that he

cannot control fortune, he automatically rejects the security of

the silver and gold exteriors that seduced his rivals and chooses

lead because it “threatens. Because he is brave, because

he does not count his deserts, because he trusts fortune, and

because he loves Portia, Bassanio is bound to choose the casket

marked, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” To

love is to be ready to do just that.


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