Why Bassanio Deserves To Win The Casket 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. Magnificence 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 marriage.
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. Fortune 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 control.
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. Risk 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. Shakespeare.