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.

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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.