Explain the lines, "If Hercules and Lichas play at dice...And so may I, blind fortune leading me, Miss that which one unworthier may attain, and die with grieving," in Act ll, Scene l of The Merchant of Venice.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

These words are a portion of the retort uttered by the Moroccan Prince when he addresses Portia. In these lines, he is indirectly referring to the gamble that he has undertaken by competing in a lottery for Portia's hand in marriage. The venture was formulated by Portia's now deceased father and demands that suitors choose the right casket of three to successfully claim her as a bride.

The Prince compares this particular risk to playing a game of dice in which the outcome is never guaranteed. The Prince regrets that he has to participate in such a demeaning exercise. The end result is determined by fate which means that the participants cannot determine the outcome. To illustrate and emphasize his point, he alludes to a hero of classic Roman mythology, Hercules, who was renowned for his prowess and great strength. This section of the Prince's speech reads as follows:

If Hercules and Lichas play at dice
Which is the better man, the greater throw
May turn by fortune from the weaker hand:
So is Alcides beaten by his page;
And so may I, blind fortune leading me,
Miss that which one unworthier may attain,
And die with grieving.

The Prince is suggesting that if Hercules should play dice with his servant Lichas to determine which of the two is better, the result might go to the weaker man, in this case Lichas. The Prince is suggesting that he may become the victim of a similar outcome and lose to someone of a much lowlier stature and status than him. He declares that he will die of sadness if that should happen.

As it is, the arrogant and pompous Prince does get an opportunity to choose a casket in scene 7, and he makes the wrong choice. The Prince's earlier contention that the outcome of a lottery lies in the hands of fate is quite ironic here because his arrogance is what makes him choose incorrectly, not destiny.

His decision for not choosing the silver chest is determined by his supercilious assertion that it is unacceptable because "A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross" and that even thinking about choosing the lead casket would be "damnation to think so base a thought." He decides on the gold casket and is surprised when he finds a skull with an accompanying scroll inside. The scroll reads, in part:

All that glitters is not gold;...
...Fare you well; your suit is cold.
Cold, indeed; and labour lost:...

The Prince offers a saddened farewell, and he and his entourage depart with a flourish. Portia is immensely relieved that he has been unsuccessful.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In The Merchant of Venice, one of Portia's suitors, the Prince of Morocco, is about to make his choice between the three caskets, one of which is gold, one silver and one lead. The Prince has asked Portia not to judge him on his "complexion" and he has told her that he would fight for her and even risk his life taking cubs from their mother or facing a lion when hungry for food just to win her hand in marriage. Unfortunately, this is not the case in these circumstances.

To show how unreasonable the terms of the marriage are Morocco compares Hercules and Lichas - Hercules being the stronger. If these two men were to play a game of dice, the "better" man would be he that throws the highest score - the "greater throw." So this could be the weaker man, strength having nothing to do with the result and , just as Alcides was beaten by his servant ("page") so could Morocco be beaten and miss his opportunity. Someone else, who is not worthy of Portia, may then go on to win her hand. Morocco will

miss that which one unworthier may attain

This will cause him so much grief, he will "die grieving."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial