Why Bassanio Deserves to Win the Casket Testdoes he love her for herself or for the opportunity she offers him torenew his wasted estate? The other main characters are tried byevents; 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 rightlylove.”And as Bassanio hastens to his choice, Portia remarks,”If you do love me, you will find me out.” We may assume thetest’s validity as given.But for hostile critics some extratextual evidence ofBassanio’s worthiness may be necessary.
First let us admit thatin the fairy-tale world to which Belmont is often said to belong,the fair lady’s fortune is always a given, having no othersignification than a reward for virtue. Let us furtheracknowledge that in the real world of Elizabeth, an impecuniousyoung lord had no choice but to choose his partner from theavailable heiresses. We will entirely miss the point if weapproach this marriage with our post-Romantic notions ofindividual free choice and true love; these are not the ways ofthis world. Among availabe heiresses, Portia is obviously aprecious 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 “LordBassanio,” “my lord,” “your lordship,” “your worship,” and “yourhonor”). But he requires wealth to do justice to his title.MagnificenceAt a time when relationships were everything and moneynothing, Bassanio’s reckless expenditures, so painful to modernsensibilities, would have been seen as a virtue. He is whatAristotle calls a “Great Soul,” one who has no attachment toworldly goods, who is fond of conferring benefits on others, forwhom spending money is an art (“Magnificence”), and who spends”gladly and lavishly, since nice calculation is shabby.” _DeOfficiis_ declares that “There is nothing more honorable andnoble than to be indifferent to money.” For him, money is anon-thing, a drudge for moving goods from one person to another,but never an end in itself.
It has no more value than the waterthat carries the merchant’s cargo, and we should “deny no one thewater that flows by.”Bassanio is introduced as one who has “disabled hisestate/By something showing a more swelling port/Than his faintmeans would grant continuance.” In dire financial straits, heexpensively feasts his friends and plans to entertain them with amasque.He undertakes to “hold a rival” place with Portia’sother suitors, both princes, and he therefore brings “gifts ofrich value” to Belmont.He does not apologize for the “noblerate” of his expenditures; he trusts his luck. Later on, in another part of _The Merchant_, Jessica echoesBassanio’s prodigality, when she wastes away her little casket ofgold and jewels at a rate of fourscore ducats a night and tradesher father’s wedding ring for a monkey, just to celebrate hermarriage. And Portia knows precisely what kind of a man she isgetting. Bassanio “freely” told her, on his first visit toBelmont, that all the wealth he had “ran in his veins,” thathis “state was nothing,” but that didn’t stop her from issuing asecond invitation.
She knows that he is “a scholar and asoldier.” He has had a good education. His military service isan even better recommendation, for, according to the leadingauthority on the subject, “the principal and true profession of aCourtier ought to be in feats of arms.” And he is well-connected, too, for he first came to Belmont “in the company ofthe Marquis of Montferrat.” The Marquisate of Montferratbelonged to the illustrious princely house of Gonzaga. ThreeGonzagas participated in the dialogue of which _The Courtier_consisted, The Lady Elizabeth Gonzaga in the chair.
Thus Nerissacan say without reservation, “He, of all men that ever my foolisheyes looked upon, was the best deserving a fair lady.” On thistopic Cicero quotes Themistocles’ wishes for his daughter: “Formy 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 forher as she is for him.FortuneTo understand the casket test one must imagine some of theconsequences of a living in a highly entropic world.
In thefirst line of the play, Antonio says, “I know not why I am sosad.” The second scene shifts us to Belmont, and Portia says,”By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is a-weary of this greatworld.” In the beginning, we find the characters on whom the twomain actions hinge, one in Venice and one in Belmont, in a stateof 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 besacrificed to the first man who picks up the right casket. Muchmore than it does today, fortune ruled Shakespeare’s world. Inthese two scenes Shakespeare gives us existential experience ofwhat it’s like to be helpless in the hands of forces beyond one’scontrol.Recognizing the part played by fortune was once a moralimperative. A basic premise of Stoicism is that Fortune controlseverything but one’s body and one’s will (Epictetus); by givingup any hope of controlling the future and putting will in chargeof body, one can make the best of the options still open. Ourpremise at the end of the 20th century is the reverse.
By takingcharge of Fortune–by engaging in scientific and medicalresearch, passing laws, making studies, forecasting naturaldisasters, averting diseases, installing air bags, takingcourses, and preventing war–we can manage to control thedirection of our lives, keep what we earn, and look forward to afull and rewarding career. This is not reality according to _DeOfficiis_, which cries out,Who fails to comprehend the enormous, two-fold power ofFortune for weal and for woe? When we enjoy her favouringbreeze, we are wafted over to the wished-for haven; when sheblows against us, we are dashed to destruction.Antonio explodes: Now, with Antonio’s lecture to Shylock firmly in mind we areable to decipher the riddle of the caskets. The first twosuitors lose because they are afraid to lose; like Shylock theytake too many pains to assure success. When one begins to relyon outcomes subject to Fortune, according to Seneca, “therefollows a life of anxiety, suspicion, and alarm, a dread ofmishap and worry over the changes time brings.
” “This is thedepth of servitude.” The overly cautious approach comes throughbest in Arragon’s deliberations. “Who chooseth me shall get asmuch as he deserves,” says the silver casket. True, Arragonbethinks 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 thesilver casket, containing, not Portia’s picture but that of ablinking idiot.
It was a foolish mistake, because by assumingdesert he _does_ try “to cozen fortune,” to force her hand, doingexactly what he has just finished saying shouldn’t be done. Ifshe can be cozened, she isn’t fortune.However much honor may be deserved, one cannot earn it, onecannot honor oneself. Arragon asks for “as much as he deserves”and gets exactly that much.
“To offend and judge are distinctoffices,” observes Portia, tartly. One can’t be a judge in hisown 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 Portiareminds us later in the courtroom, “In the course of justice/Noneof us should see salvation.” Don’t ever depend on justice.
Morocco, too, assumes desert, but fixing on the negative side ofArragon’s argument, that desert is too often unrewarded, chooseswhat looks like a sure thing, the gold casket. Nothing is asgold as gold.The first two suitors try to “cozen fortune” by decipheringthe clues (the metals and the mottos) on the surface of thecaskets. Portia calls them “deliberate fools” because they workso hard at destroying themselves. Neither considers the leadcasket; why hazard all for lead? But they worry themselves overthe gold and silver caskets almost as much as Shylock does overthe loan to Antonio. In truth their “native hue of resolution/Islike Hamlet’s sicklied o’er by the pale cast of thought.
“RiskBassanio doesn’t agonize over the mottos or the metals. IfPortia hadn’t held him back, he would have gone directly to thelead casket. “Let me choose,” he protests, and later “Let me tomy fortune and the caskets.” Relishing risk rather than seekingto escape from it, admitting his mortality, realizing that hecannot control fortune, he automatically rejects the security ofthe silver and gold exteriors that seduced his rivals and chooseslead because it “threatens. Because he is brave, becausehe does not count his deserts, because he trusts fortune, andbecause he loves Portia, Bassanio is bound to choose the casketmarked, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.
” Tolove is to be ready to do just that.