Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice: Portia's Suitors
Shakespeare highlights three of Portia’s suitors, the Prince of Morocco, the Prince of Arragon and Bassanio. He does this to heighten dramatic tension, as these three men are the most important candidates to win Portia’s hand in marriage. They reveal the contents of the three caskets and their different characters as exposed as being proud, vain and humble. They also emphasize the racial prejudices of Venice a place where many races clash. Their attitudes towards the caskets and their choices indicate what their character is like. This essay will compare and contrast the three suitors and will explore how Shakespeare influences the audience’s attitudes towards the three men.
The Prince of Morocco is the first suitor of the three suitors we are introduced to. His first line is, ‘Mislike me not for my complexion’ (Act II Scene i)
He is anxious to compensate for the colour of his skin. He shows himself to be ashamed and insecure. However his character is proud because after he remarks on his skin colour he proceeds to defend it and boasts about himself, ‘ ...this aspect of mine/ Hath fear’d the valiant…The best regarded virgins of our clime/Have lov’d it too...’ (Act II Scene i)
He challenges Portia to compare his blood with the whitest of men to see whose is the reddest. ‘Bring me the fairest creature…And let us make incision for your love/ To prove whose blood is reddest, or mine.’ (Act II Scene i)
This would be a way to suggest that Morocco was as noble as any white man was because red blood signified courage and virility. A lot of emphasis is placed on Morocco’s skin colour. His long-winded speeches full of false and extravagant praise makes him sound insincere, ‘…all the world desires her; /From all corners of the earth they come,/ To kiss this shrine, this mortal breathing saint:’ (Act II Scene vii) In contrast his exit is short and dignified, in total disparity to his entrance and long speeches before choosing a casket. ‘…I have too griev’d a heart /To take a tedious leave: leave losers part.’ (Act II Scene vii) This indicates he does not easily accept defeat.
He explains his thoughts on each of the caskets as he reads the inscriptions on them. He says the lead casket is not worth hazarding everything for and quickly dismisses it. When he comes to the silver casket he comments, ‘Thou dost deserve enough and yet enough/May not extend so far as to the lady:’ (Act II Scene vii).
He exposes his secret fear that he does not deserve Portia. He considers silver not to be grand enough for Portia and dismisses this casket also. He settles upon the gold casket thinking that ‘what many men desire’ describes Portia. His choice can be explained by the fact that it is only his royal blood and his fortune that lends him respect from the people of Venice. His riches are very important to him. From this we can say that Morocco represents sensual love, a desire for physical pleasures as oppose to those of the mind. This means Morocco judges on outward appearances. The quotation, ‘All that glisters is not gold’ befits his character which is insecure and shallow.
The second suitor is the Prince of Arragon whose entrance unlike Morocco’s is not pre-empted by any comments from Portia. His arrogance and pride are shown through his choice of casket and his reaction to choosing the wrong casket. He comments on the inscription of gold casket, ‘…I will not jump with common spirits/And rank me with barbarous multitudes.’ (Act II Scene ix)
and thinking gold was too common for him he arrogantly discards it. He does not even stop to contemplate the lead casket saying only that it would have to look more attractive for him to hazard anything for it. The silver casket is the one that appeals to him the most because he feels that no one deserving should go unmerited. His arrogance leads him to assume that he is worthy of Portia. Before he opens the casket he says, ‘I will assume dessert…’ . His reaction when he finds that he was unsuccessful also highlights his arrogance because he is so incredulous and can not believe this is happening to him, ‘Did I deserve no more than a fool’s head? / Is that my prize? Are my desserts no better?’ (Act II Scene ix).
He is so crestfallen that one could feel sympathy for him. But he graciously accepts his fate and makes a dignified exit, ‘I’ll keep my oath, /Patiently to bear my wroth.’ (Act ii Scene ix).
His choice indicates that Arragon represents love controlled by intellect because from his viewpoint choosing the silver casket was the obvious and right choice. He was blind to his own pride.
Bassanio is the last of the three suitors and since he has appeared several times throughout the play before the audience know him quite well. He is portrayed as neither proud nor arrogant but shows himself to be nervous around Portia indicating he may be inexperienced with women. This contrasts with the attitudes of the other two suitors, as they are full of self-importance. Their purpose amongst others is to make Bassanio appear virtuous.
He is significant and by far the most important of the three suitors because Portia actually displays interest for him. He also receives a good report from the messenger at the end of Act II Scene ix before he enters unlike the other two suitors. He receives better treatment than the other two suitors do. Portia plays music in the background perhaps to calm him and soothe him into the right frame of mind so that he may choose correctly. She also tries to delay him in taking the test, ‘…for, in choosing wrong, /I lose your company:’ (Act III Scene ii). But he says ‘Let me choose; /For as I am, I live upon the rack’ showing himself to be an impatient and tortured lover or perhaps anxious to lay claim to Portia’s fortune.
His long speeches before choosing the casket are too intense. He does however make some good points and he centres on the saying, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’. He talks about religion, cowardice and beauty. He says how one could explain away evil actions by citing biblical quotes, in effect hiding behind religion. ‘…In religion, What damned error, but some sober brow/ Will bless it and approve it with a text’ (Act III Scene ii)
On cowardice he remarks that men could give signs outwardly that they were brave but on the inside they were cowards. He also mentions beauty and how the person who wore the most cosmetics was the least beautiful. He mentions that veils could hide things and fool even the wisest people and the example he gives is a beautiful scarf hides a dark face. This contrasts directly with the other two suitors because they are materialistic and judge by outward appearances. These wise words and also the fact that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain leads him to choose the lead casket. ‘…thou meagre lead,/ Which rather threat’nest than dost promise aught,/ Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence’ (Act III Scene ii) His reaction to choosing the right casket is simply ecstatic and he is rapt. His effusive praise and attempts to sound sincere fail and make him sound insincere.
Shakespeare influences the audience’s attitudes towards the three men in the way that he presents them. The fact that Bassanio receives a good pre-emption gives the audience a good impression of him. However, Arragon receives none and Morocco receives a racist remark before he enters and also after he has left.
Who they are influences the audience too, the Prince of Arragon and Morocco are supposed to be viewed as comical characters. As at the time, England was at war with Spain, Arragon is a rather unflattering stereotype of a typical Spaniard. His arrogance and his failure in choosing the right casket would have been funny to an Elizabethan audience. Also some may find the play on words with his name ‘Arragon’ and ‘Arrogant’ also amusing. The same is for Morocco who is jeered at for his skin colour. Bassanio however is portrayed more favourably, he is a Christian, a Venetian and not proud or arrogant.
The way Portia reacts to them is instrumental in influencing the audience’s opinions of them. When Portia picks on a fault of a suitor it is pounced upon by the audience and when Portia is happy with a suitor (that is Bassanio) then the audience also begins to like him. The audience’s main concern is that heroine of the play is happy with whichever man she marries. Shakespeare has a lot of influence over the audience since it is he who decides how to present the characters and whether to make their personalities likeable or not thus plays with the thoughts of the audience.