Why Bassanio Deserves to Win the Casket Test


Excerpts from an article B. R. Schneider


The ambiguous scene in which Bassanio first discusses his courtship of Portia with Antonio leaves us in doubt: 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.  So, unless it is a foolproof test, we can never be sure about Bassanio. 


Let us note, therefore, that the play takes some pains to certify the test in advance.  In the second scene, 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."  As such 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, it is easy to preach the moral that money is not everything. However in the real world of Elizabeth, a poor 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 Shakespeare’s world.  Among available heiresses, Portia is obviously a precious treasure:  high mettled like "Brutus's Portia,"  virtuous, 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").


What about Bassanio’s reckless expenditure: surely that marks him out as almost a spoilt brat who does not appreciate the value of money? On the contraty, 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 and who spends "gladly and lavishly, since nice calculation is shabby."


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.


Indeed in the sixth year of his reign, James I of England, in dire straits, came begging to Parliament with the following words:


It is true I have spent much but yet if I had spared any of those things, which caused a great part of my expense,  I should have dishonoured the kingdom, my self, and the late Queen.  Should I have pared the funeral of the late Queen? or the solemnity of mine and my selves entry into this Kingdom, in some honourable sort?  or should I have spared our entry into London, or our Coronation?  And when most of the Monarchs, and great Princes in Christendom sent their Ambassadors to congratulate my coming hither, and some of them came in person, was I not bound, both for my own honour, and the honour of the Kingdom, to give them good entertainment?


Even the king showed "a more swelling port/Than [his] faint means would grant continuance." As such we can hardly blame Bassanio for the same behaviour. 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.


Bassanio also willfully submits himself to the whims of fortune. A basic premise of Stoicism is that Fortune controls everything but one's body and one's will; 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 may not have been reality according to many of Shakespeare’s audience.


Nowadays rewards are generally understood to be the result of hard work and individual merit, not so much the result of good luck or the hand of heaven.  If you earn a benefit, you have no one to thank but yourself. However, there is no such concept as "earn" in Antonio's world, and that's why, on hearing Shylock use the tale of Jacob and Laban to justify interest, he flares up with the hatred of a man whose deepest belief has been insulted.


Now, with this 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. 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. 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.  In contrast, 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 "threaten[s]."  Fortune "draws back from all cowards," says the wise Seneca and so because he is brave, becausem, 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.



Read the rest of the article on: