Monday, February 6, 2012

Logic in the Coffins

      One of the most crucial aspects of The Merchant of Venice is the the three coffins that Portia's suitors must choose from in order to win her hand,one is gold, another is silver and the last one is lead. Each coffin comes with a small inscription that hints whether it is the right coffin or not. if the suitor chooses the wrong one than they are forbidden from marrying anyone for the rest of their lives. What is the most vital parts to this play is the logic that each suitor employs to choose the coffin they think is the right one. Finally there is how the function that this logic correlates with the overall themes of the play itself.
       Each one of Portia's suitors are given the chance to win her hand in marriage by looking at the quality of each coffin and inscription and determining which one will allow them to marry Portia, and subsequently gain all her wealth. The prince of Morocco is the first suitor to be shown choosing a coffin in an attempt to marry Portia. After some deliberation he chooses the gold coffin.  This decision to choose the gold is based on the fact that he views gold as the most valuable object out of the three options. It is clear that money and gold pervade his thoughts and motivates a majority of his actions seen in, "A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross./ I'll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead." (2.7.20-21). Even though he is contemplating choosing the lead here, his mind is drawn even then to the idea of gold and its apparent greater value. Then there is when he dismisses the silver coffin, "Or shall I think  in silver she's immured,/ Being ten times undervalued to tried to gold?" (2.7.52-53). It is clear from these passages that the prince of Morocco's failure to see beyond the outer worth of gold and the belief that gold is the most valuable thing in the world, he chooses the wrong coffin. Morocco's failure to see beyond the worth of gold is pointed out by the message inside the coffin itself, "'all that glisters is not gold . . . Gilded tombs do worms infold." (2.7.65-69). It is clear from the scroll inside the gold coffin that it is a moral about learning not to judge the value of something based solely on its outer appearance and that since he failed not to do so then the prince of Morocco failed. Then there is the Prince of Aragon who when given his turn chooses the silver coffin. Unlike Morocco, Aragon is not taken in by the gold coffin's inscription, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." (2.9.20), believing that this means that choosing gold means "the fool multitude, that choose by show,/ Not learning more than the fond eye can teach." (2.9.25-26). It is clear from this statement that Aragon, unlike his predecessor is able to see beyond gaudy apperances and judge more accurately the value of something. That being said he does fall prey to arrogance and pride, referring to those lower than him as "the fool multitude" and "I will not jump with common spirits/ and rank me with the barbarous multitudes." (2.9.31-32). Like the prince of Morocco the prince of Aragon is unable to look and judge things beyond what he thinks of as the true value of things that he views, something that he is mocked for by the contents of the coffin which present a picture of a fool to describe him. Finally there is Bassanio who chooses the lead coffin and not the other coffins because, "thou gaudy gold,/ Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee./ Nor none of thee, thou pale and common druge." (3.2.101-104). It is clear that Bassanio is able to accurately see the true value of the coffins presented before him and choose the right one, thus winning Portia's hand. It is interesting to note that instead of speaking about the value of the lead coffin as Morocco and Aragon does with the gold and the silver, Bassanio instead comments on the lack of value that the coffins have in true value, something that Baasanio is congratulated for inside the coffin, "you that choose not by view/ chance as fair and choose as true." (3.2.131-132).  Because he was able to look at the true value of the coffins he was able to win the lottery.
           In The Merchant of Venice, the role that the coffins play is to determine which suitor is worthy of Portia. Each coffin is designed to show the true character of the suitors and thus the level of their worthiness for marrying Portia. The suitor choosing the gold and silver coffins show themselves to fools incapable of measuring the true worth of something and are concerned with appearances. Bassanio, who chose the lead, showed that unlike the others he was capable of looking beyond the surface of something and ascertain its true value. Thus the coffins help tho determine the best  possible husband for Portia.



Jade Asta said...

Something that I am amused by in relation to Bassanio making his choice is the music that Portia has performed for him. The first three lines of the song end with words rhyming with ‘lead,’ which is the casket Bassanio must choose to win Portia as a wife. I wonder if his choice was not influenced by the “bred,” “head,” and “nourished” song that Portia chose to play for Bassanio, but not her previous suitors (III.iii. 63-65).

Celina Strater said...

Great break down of the coffins, what I find ironic was the inscription on the lead casket, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath" (2.7.9). Bassanio, while choosing the most virtuous casket, give HIS own hazards to Portia. With solely his debt and legal problems to offer, Portia provides the financial needs and legal advice that ultimately saves Bassanio. While the caskets provide a moral scope of the potential husbands, it's interesting that Shakespeare reverses the providential gender roles of a marriage.

Jacey Lawler said...

This blog made me ponder the character of Shylock even though he was not directly involved with the plot of the three chests. After reading your posting, I began to imagine Shylock and what chest he would choose if he was a suitor of Portia’s. The chests and Shylock are two important elements of Merchant so I think it is interesting to pair them together. In class, as well as in our blogs, a common thread seen focuses on how we often attempt to redeem Shylock’s character. It would be most telling to see if he would fall into his greedy stereotype and choose the golden chest; or perhaps his heart would reveal itself to be noble and true and lead would be chosen. I wish we could put Shylock to this experiment to see what kind of man he is. Since we do not see Shylock in love, this may be an unfair situation to imagine him in. But I still think it would be an exciting scenario to have our Jewish merchant pick from the lottery!

Cyrus Mulready said...

I just want to echo Jade's comment with a question. How does it change the scene if we think Portia is influencing his choice? Do we believe that Bassanio has learned the lesson of the caskets?