Portia of Belmont is a “lady richly left,” as Bassanio says of her in the first Act of The Merchant of Venice. Plus, she’s beautiful and wise. Suitors clamber to Belmont in hope. Her father knew it would be so, and in his will set up a fairy-tale test to see which Prince was most Charming. Three “caskets,” a gold, a silver, a lead: Choose the right one, the one that contains a portrait of fair Portia, and she is yours. Choose the wrong one, and you’re condemned to lifelong celibacy.
Shakespeare is playing with folkloric convention, the contrast of appearance and reality. Viewers and readers sense from the beginning that the base metal is going to be riches of all, just as we know as soon as the Grimms write “There were once three sons. . . .” that we should pick Door Number Three.
Even the characters in the play seem to know the folk tales. The first tested is the Prince of Morocco, a “tawny Moor” as the stage direction put it. He warns Portia, “Mislike me not for my complexion” (2.1.1). However dusky his skin, his blood is redder than any “fair creature northward born” who has never been burned by the sun. His dark visage “hath feared the valiant,” and back home in Morocco, he is loved by the virgins (who, we are led to suspect, don’t stay virgins for long). Morocco realizes that his exterior may be off-putting, and defuses that objection before it can be raised.
During the test, Morocco forgets his own wisdom. Gazing at the caskets, he dismisses the possibility that the lead chest might hold the treasure that is Portia: “Is’t like that lead contains her? ‘Twere damnation / to think so base a though; it were to gross / to rib her cerecloth in the obscure grave” (2.7.48-51). Contrasting appearance and reality is altogether conventional, but Shakespeare knows how often we fall prey to forgetfulness. What we know in theory we rarely practice.
Portia has already chosen Bassanio before he sees the caskets, and he her. She does all she can within the limits of her father’s will to lay clues before Bassanio. While he examines the caskets, she has her servants sing a song full of words rhyming with “lead” (bred, head, nourish-ed, fed; 3.2.63-72) and which also reminds Bassanio that fancy is bred “in the eye,/ with gazing fed” (3.2.67-68).
Bassanio gets the message. He knows that “the outward shows [may] be least themselves,” and recognizes that the world is “deceived with ornament.” Corrupt laws are “seasoned with a gracious voice,” every vice dresses itself up in virtue, and no matter how golden for a time beauties end in the grave like the rest of us. Even in religion, a “damned error” is often blessed and approved “hiding the grossness with fair ornament” (3.2.77-80).
Bassanio has the theory down; more importantly, he acts on it. “All that glisters is not gold,” the gold casket told Morocco, but Bassanio doesn’t need to be told. “Gaudy gold” is a trap, silver a “pale and common drudge / ‘Tween man and man” (3.2.101-107). Lead it is, and in the lead box he finds “fair Portia’s counterfeit.” “I am locked in one of them,” Portia had said (3.2.40). By choosing rightly, Bassanio has given her new life, unlocked her grave and raised her from her “casket” of lead.
In the speech that follows, Bassanio pushes this lesson to another level, one that opens up onto the central themes of the play. Beautiful as the portrait of Portia is, it is nothing to Portia herself: “look, how far / The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow / in overprizing it, so far this shadow / Doth limp behind the substance” (3.2.126-129). Bassanio’s praise is inadequate to the portrait, the portrait a mere “shadow” in relation to the “substance.”
For some in Shakespeare’s audience, the contrast of shadow and substance might well have conjured Platonic associations. For most, it would have been vaguely reminiscent of something they once heard heard in church: The law “was a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17; cf. Hebrews 8:5; 10:1). In the New Testament, appearance and reality are not “ontological” but “historical” categories; the contrast names the difference between the signs and shadows of the old and the substance and form of the new covenant.
That, of course, is the central conflict of The Merchant of Venice. “I stand for law,” Shylock shrieks in the open court, scoffing at Portia’s plea that “mercy seasons justice,” her reminder that in the way of justice no one finds salvation, her allusion to the prayer that both asks for and demands forgiveness. Shylock stands for law because, allegorically, he stands for Torah, the law through Moses that has now given way to the grace and truth of Jesus, the old letter that is now fulfilled in the Spirit. Antonio, and Portia too, stand for mercy, for the law of Christ, the law of self-sacrificing love that rewards the one who (as the inscription on the lead casket puts it) “give[s] and hazard[s] all he hath” (2.7.9).
Like much in the play, this rejoinder to the Jew Shylock curves around to rebuke the Venetians. Bassanio knows that gold corrupts, and absolute gold corrupts absolutely. He knows that the world is obsessed with ornament, and that ornament in law, religion, love, morals often provides a whitewash for dead men’s bones. Venice, Christian Venice, is such a world, a world intoxicated with gaudy gold and the pale and common drudge of silver. Obsessed with ornament, Venice is as “Jewish” as its famous moneylender. It is a city of Judaizers who love shadows even – especially – after day has dawned.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House. This essay first appeared in Credenda/Agenda in 2010.
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