Saturday, 18 January 2014

An Overview of The Casket Trial in The Merchant of Venice

What is the purpose of the casket trial in
The Merchant of Venice?
Shakespeare uses two literal trials in The Merchant of Venice: The selection of the caskets in Belmont and the courtroom scene in Venice.

It could be argued that most fiction is about trials of one form or another, because it is often placing characters under pressure, or ‘testing’ them, that allows a writer to create drama.

And Shakespeare regularly puts his characters through trials, whether it’s Hamlet’s quest for revenge or Isabella’s attempts to save her brother’s life in Measure for Measure.

In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare presents two literal, but vastly different, trials. While the legal trial in Venice is (for the most part) grounded in realism, the trial of the caskets is fanciful and fairytale-like...much like most of the events in Belmont.

What is the Trial of the Three Caskets in The Merchant of Venice?

In Belmont, Portia’s suitors are presented with three caskets: gold, silver and lead. Each man is asked to choose a casket - if he chooses the one with a portrait of Portia inside, he will win her hand in marriage. The game sounds simple enough so far.

Each casket has a riddle, which, if deciphered correctly, tells of the contents. This trial, designed by Portia’s father, allows him to screen his daughter’s suitors in absentia.

We know, from act one, that there have been numerous undesirables who have attempted the casket trial. However, the audience, or reader, is only witness to three attempts.

Morocco learns that 'all that glitters is not gold'

Which Casket Does Morocco Choose?

The first suitor we actually see is the Prince of Morocco - a dashing, confident and eloquent man, who seems to have quite an effect on Portia, “But if my father had not scanted me…Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair/As any comer I have look'd on yet/For my affection.”(II.i) 

However, Morocco’s gung-ho attitude and his belief that he is searching for ‘what many men desire’, leads him to choose the gold casket and he learns that, indeed, “All that glitters is not gold.”(II.vii) 

So, poor Morocco leaves Belmont a dejected figure, vastly different from the one we are introduced to just four scenes earlier.

Arragon is something of a fool - we know he's going
to choose wrongly

Which Casket Does Arragon Choose?

The second suitor to take the trial is the Prince of Arragon. Arragon by name, and arrogant by nature, the prince almost immediately disregards the gold casket, because, “I will not choose what many men desire,/Because I will not jump with common spirits…”(II.ix) 

Instead, he selects the silver casket, which promises ‘…as much as he deserves’. Which is, in fact...nothing. Arragon, like Morocco, leaves Belmont a shadow of his former self.

Which Casket Does Bassanio Choose?

Finally, Bassanio enters...And it might as well be on a white charger. In this fairytale, there's no mistaking the hero. 

Does Bassanio's love for Portia outweigh his
love of money?
Portia, who has something of a fancy for Bassanio, tries to dissuade him from choosing, “I pray you, tarry: pause a day or two/Before you hazard; for, in choosing wrong,/I lose your company…”(III.ii) However, Bassanio is determined to make his selection. 

It is worth remembering here that, at the beginning of the play, we learn Bassanio is something of a spendthrift. He has squandered a considerable amount of Antonio’s money and seems drawn to the trappings of wealth. 

Therefore, when it comes to choosing a casket, it seems reasonable to assume he will select one made of a precious metal. 

However, when it is time for Bassano’s ‘test’, he is surprisingly level-headed. It seems as though his love for Portia has brought a maturity that allows him to realise, “Look on beauty,/And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight…thou meagre lead,/Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught/Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence”(III.ii)

What Do The Casket Scenes Bring to The Merchant of Venice Party?

Interestingly, all three casket trials do more than just ‘test’ these men (although that is clearly the original goal), they also affect change in the suitors - temporary or permanent, we don't know. 

The casket trail is a dramatic tool and a fairytale-style device,
which means we know that it'll be the third suitor, Bassanio,
who chooses correctly
But we do learn something about all of the men. Trials, whether literal or figurative, are great theatrical devices that create drama and allow an audience to empathise with, understand or, in some cases, despise a character. 

And The Merchant of Venice is a great example of the way Shakespeare uses trials to great effect.

A version of this article was first published, by the author, on suite101.

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