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In Act 2 scene 1 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, please explain these...

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bobbyroychoud... | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted August 28, 2013 at 6:29 PM via web

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In Act 2 scene 1 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, please explain these lines rendered by the Moroccan prince:

Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun, To whom I am a neighbour and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born,

Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles, and let us make incision for your love, to prove ...my gentle queen.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted August 28, 2013 at 7:31 PM (Answer #1)

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In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia has been condemned to an awful ordeal by her father's will. She will be forced to marry the "winner" of a test her father devised for his daughter's suitors. There are three boxes ("caskets"), one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. In order for a suitor to "win" her in this marriage lottery, they must choose the box which contains Portia's picture (portrait). Any suitor who attempts to win her hand in marriage must agree never to marry if he chooses the wrong box.

Portia is not only beautiful but she is bright, as well, and this process is galling to her; she is especially upset because she loves Bassanio but cannot give him any hints about which box to choose. 

One of the suitors who comes to try his luck at this game of chance is a Moroccan prince; he is obviously dark-skinned, unlike the Venetians Portia is used to seeing, so in the speech you reference he addresses the color of his skin. First, he asks Portia not to dislike him simply because of his dark skin; his color simply means he lives near the sun.

Mislike me not for my complexion,
The shadow'd livery of the burnish'd sun,
To whom I am a neighbour and near bred.

Then he issues a kind of challenge, telling her to compare him to any light-skinned man ("the fairest creature northward born"). They shall each make an incision in their arms to see "whose blood is reddest," and of course he is confident it will be him. 

Bring me the fairest creature northward born,
Where Phoebus' fire scarce thaws the icicles,
And let us make incision for your love,
To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine.

The Moroccan prince's final boast in this speech is that many valiant men have shown fear when they looked upon him, and the "best-regarded virgins" of his country have loved his dark face. 

I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine
Hath fear'd the valiant: by my love I swear
The best-regarded virgins of our clime
Have loved it too: I would not change this hue,
Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen.

The only reason he would even consider changing the color of his skin is to win Portia's love. 

Of course the speech, delivered by a prince, is ineffectual in winning Portia because she loves another; not only that, but he does not choose the correct box, of course.

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