In Act 3, Scene 2, from the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, explain the lines: "Look on beauty, And you shall see 'tis purchased by weight...Veiling an Indian beauty -" (3.2.90-101).  I want a...

In Act 3, Scene 2, from the Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare, explain the lines: "Look on beauty, And you shall see 'tis purchased by weight...Veiling an Indian beauty -" (3.2.90-101).  I want a detailed explanation of each and every line.

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sullymonster | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare employs the Aristotelian comedic form, in which the young lovers must face an obstacle to their union. The caskets are the obstacle placed in Bassanio and Portia’s way, and this speech is the climactic moment in which Bassanio will rightly choose the correct casket. In these lines, he shows his ability to see past the distraction of beauty that confused the princes of Arragon and Morocco. In the lines indicated, Bassanio explains that appearances can be deceiving – a theme that surrounds all the conflicts of the play.

First, Bassanio asks us to examine the universal idea of beauty which can be “purchased by the weight." Weight refers to “weight in gold” and also refers to the weight of make-up – money can buy beauty because money can by make-up and provide ornamentation to the face. However, those who “wear most of it” are the “lightest” because they have the least respect. The irony in these lines is that Bassanio, in borrowing money to woo Portia, has also adorned himself with a false appearance. He goes on to say that beauty is also apparent in the a woman’s blond hair (“golden locks”) flying freely in the wind (“maketh…wanton gambols”). He calls this a “supposed fairness,” however, because the hair could be from a wig, made from a head of someone who has died. Bassanio concludes by saying that ornament like is “guiled shore” that distracts a sailor from a dangerous or a scarf that hides the face of a foreign beauty.

Although Bassanio’s speech gives the immediate cause for his choice of the lead casket, the danger implied in the last few lines underscores both the prevalence of and danger of appearances. Most of the characters take on a false appearance – Bassanio through the borrowing of money, Portia and Jessica in their cross-dressing, and Shylock by his conversion to Christianity. Appearances help in some of the cases, but the appearance of the contract Shylock has drawn with Antonio is his undoing. Shylock thinks he will be get his “pound of flesh,” but he is deceived by his own wording and ends up on the wrong side of the law.

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andrewnightingale's profile pic

andrewnightingale | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

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This monologue by Bassanio expresses his musings and his ideas about the contrast between appearance and reality (a major theme in the play) as he ponders which casket to choose to win Portia's hand in marriage.

When he says, 'Look on beauty, and you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;' he means that beauty is literally only an outward show, that it is not real. The beauty is created by the make-up used to create an illusion. The 'weight' is the heaviness of the make-up, thickly applied to hide whatever less attractive features the person might have. It is quite cynical - so when you look on who you think is beautiful, consider how many beauty products were applied to create this vision pulchritude. 

'Which therein works a miracle in nature,' extends the metaphor. The applied make-up miraculously, through its application, changes what nature has created. Nature's original design is altered and in this lies the miracle - that the individual's natural looks have been changed to confuse and mislead the viewer. 

'Making them lightest that wear most of it:' Bassanio is suggesting here that those who apply the most make-up, would look the most beautiful, the most adorned, fairer in skin (literally). Notice the clever contrast between 'weight' (heavy) and 'lightest'. 

'So are those crisped snaky golden locks' The hair has been fashioned to look golden, lustrous and beautifully curled, falling in coils ('snaky') down the shoulders. 'Gold' is a symbol for richness - a clear reference to the lustrous feel and the fullness of the hair. Note the use of 'snaky' - an allusion to Medusa - a negative image.

'Which made such wanton gambols with the wind,' The hair is light and blows freely and sensuously in the breeze, as if it desires to be played with. An image of promiscuity and desire. Note the alliteration which emphasises this image. The innuendo is of one who gives herself freely, in a promiscuous sense.

'Upon supposed fairness' The beauty is faked. It is an intentional illusion created to deceive and mislead.

' ... often known to be the dowry of a second head,' the 'second head' is a reference to a skull from which the hair has been removed and fashioned into a wig. A rather cynical remark suggesting that the one who displays these lustrous and silky tresses, is actually wearing a wig fashioned from the hair left behind by a corpse! Deceptive indeed! 'Often known' implies that this is a trend, not just a single event.

'The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.' It was believed that hair continued growing after a person had died, therefore the reference to 'bred'. We now know that it is just that the skull shrinks after death and obviously continues to do so, and the hair, which becomes exposed to the roots, seems to have grown whilst the body is entombed. The point is that the hair was cut off and used to fashion wigs.

'Thus ornament is but the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea;' Just as sailors are beguiled by a calm-looking shore that hides pernicious crags and rocks which can lead to a disastrous shipwreck, is one misled by this so-called 'beauty'. It is but an 'ornament', a decoration which outwardly seems attractive and becoming, but is not real. The comparison is emphasised.

'... the beauteous scarf veiling an Indian beauty;' the metaphor is further extended. A beautiful scarf may hide the true identity of the wearer - that she is not 'light' but swarthy. 'Indian' is a reference to one with a darker skin tone - an obsession in Shakespeare's time.

The deception is complete.

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