casket story plot summery
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Portia’s various suitors must choose between three chests, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead, in the hopes of selecting the one that contains her portrait. The man who guesses correctly will win Portia’s hand in marriage, but those who guess incorrectly must swear never to marry anyone. Nerissa lists the suitors who have come to guess—a Neapolitan prince, a Palatine count, a French nobleman, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the nephew of the duke of Saxony—and Portia criticizes their many hilarious faults. For instance, she describes the Neapolitan prince as being too fond of his horse, the Palatine count as being too serious, the Englishman as lacking any knowledge of Italian or any of the other languages Portia speaks, and the German suitor of drunkenness. Each of these suitors has left without even attempting a guess for fear of the penalty for guessing wrong. This fact relieves Portia, and both she and Nerissa remember Bassanio, who has visited once before, as the suitor most deserving and worthy of praise. A servant enters to tell Portia that the prince of Morocco will arrive soon, news that Portia is not at all happy to hear.
Act I, scene ii introduces Portia, the heroine of the play, and establishes the casket test through which she will find a husband. After we see more of Portia, her compliance with her dead father’s instructions may seem odd, as she proves to be an extremely independent and strong-willed character. However, her adherence to her father’s will establishes an important aspect of her character: she plays by the rules. Her strict adherence to laws and other strictures makes her an interesting counterpoint to Shylock, the play’s villain, whom we meet in the next scene.
Because Portia is such a fabulously wealthy heiress, the only men eligible to court her are from the highest end of the social strata. As a result, the competition between her suitors is international, including noblemen from various parts of Europe and even Africa. Portia’s description of her previous suitors serves as a vehicle for Shakespeare to satirize the nobleman of France, Scotland, Germany, and England for the amusement of his English audience. At the end of the scene, the arrival of the prince of Morocco is announced, introducing a suitor who is racially and culturally more distant from Portia than her previous suitors. The casket test seems designed to give an equal chance to all of these different noblemen, so the competition for Portia’s hand and wealth in Belmont parallels the financial community of Venice, which is also organized to include men of many nations, Christian and non-Christian alike. Portia’s remarks about the prince of Morocco’s devilish skin color, however, show that she is rooting for a husband who is culturally and racially similar to her. In fact, she hopes to marry Bassanio, the suitor with the background closest to hers.
We hear about a lot of suitors and learn that Portia does not like them. This shows that she is more interested in forming a relationship than in marrying someone who is rich and/or powerful. We also learn that these men are cowards for leaving without choosing, since the rules are very stringent if they choose wrongly.
Then we meet Morocco and Aragon; each chooses the wrong casket. This allows us (and Portia) to know which is the right casket. Such knowledge adds to the tension when Bassanio chooses. I find it hilarious that the song sung as he chooses has many rhymes with "lead." We also see the contrast between the first two and Bassanio: They read the message on each casket, while Bassanio looks only at the caskets themselves.