In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in Act 3 Scene 2, and referencing the extract," Let music sound while he doth make his choice; ......... And summon him to marriage, -" how could...

In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, in Act 3 Scene 2, and referencing the extract," Let music sound while he doth make his choice; ......... And summon him to marriage, -" how could Portia's eyes be a watery death-bed for Bassanio ?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the moment has arrived for Bassanio to have his turn at choosing which among three caskets contains the key to Portia’s hand in marriage. Portia and Bassanio desperately want to marry each other, but Portia’s reticence regarding the Bassanio’s ability to choose wisely has delayed the proceedings.  Portia had convinced Bassanio to spend a month in her company so that she can gradually manipulate the process by which he makes his choice.  Basically, she wants to sensitize Bassanio sufficiently for him to recognize the distinctions between two caskets made of precious metals and one made of lead.  The ability to draw that distinctions lies at the core of Portia’s late father’s strategy for ensuring his daughter ends up with a suitable husband – one who understands emotions and can think through a philosophical problem rather than one driven primarily by pecuniary considerations.  As their future together hinges, however, on Bassanio’s ability to choose correctly among the three caskets, the two lovers are more than a little nervous about the approaching exercise.  This, then, is the context in which the following exchange takes place:

BASSANIO Promise me life, and I’ll confess the truth.

PORTIA Well then, confess and live.

BASSANIO “Confess” and “love”

Had been the very sum of my confession:

O happy torment, when my torturer

Doth teach me answers for deliverance!

But let me to my fortune and the caskets.

PORTIA Away, then! I am lock’d in one of them:

If you do love me, you will find me out.

Nerissa and the rest, stand all aloof.

Let music sound while he doth make his choice;

Then, if he lose, he makes a swan-like end,

Fading in music: that the comparison

May stand more proper, my eye shall be the stream

And watery death-bed for him. He may win;

And what is music then? Then music is

Even as the flourish when true subjects bow

To a new-crowned monarch: such it is

As are those dulcet sounds in break of day

That creep into the dreaming bridegroom’s ear,

And summon him to marriage. Now he goes,

With no less presence, but with much more love,

The purpose of Portia’s comments is to set the stage for both failure and success.  She is ordering that music play while Bassanio chooses among the caskets so that, in the case of failure, he can fade away like a swan to beautiful music and, in the case of success, the atmosphere will already be established in which a party will take place.  As the metaphorical swan slowly and sadly fades away, it will do so through the prism of Portia’s tear-filled eyes, the “stream” to which she refers.  Portia anticipates, the event the wrong casket is chosen, watching her beloved disappear through her tear-filled (or watery) eyes.  The phrase “watery death-bed,” in the context of Bassanio’s laments regarding the “torture” to which he is being subjected (“I live upon the rack”) is hyperbole; it is unlikely Shakespeare intended the audience to believe Bassanio would kill himself should he fail to gain Portia’s hand in marriage – although, this was the guy who had his two teenaged lovers kill themselves under similar circumstances in Romeo and Juliet, so, who knows?

andrewnightingale eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Portia is expressing concern that Bassanio might choose the wrong casket and not be able to marry her and also, in terms of the conditions in her father's will, may not choose another woman with a proposal for marriage ever again. 

Portia will, of course be overwhelmed with grief should Bassanio make the wrong choice and would therefore weep. Her tears would thus be a symbol, in this context, of Bassanio's error. Bassanio therefore, would be overwhelmed and distraught by his most grievous error and may consider committing suicide, an exaggeration maybe. In this sense, her tears become symbolic of his failure and possible suicide i.e. his 'death bed'. This also ties in with his 'swan like end' - his eventual death from grief.     

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The Merchant of Venice

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