From Act 3 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, from the lines, 'Look on beauty, And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;  .................dangerous sea; Who wears the...

From Act 3 Scene 2 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, from the lines, 'Look on beauty, And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;  .................dangerous sea;

Who wears the 'crisped snaky golden locks' and who is the actual owner?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Act III, Scene II, of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia is trying desperately to manipulate the process set in motion by her late father, who demanded in his will that the one who can marry his daughter must first choose correctly among three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead.  Portia loves Bassanio, who is similarly determined to wed Portia, but the challenge of picking correctly among the three caskets is a process involving judgment born of a wisdom possessed by few among the fair maiden’s suitors.  Bassanio, anxious to select among the caskets and take Portia for his wife, is emotionally exhausted, comparing this process to torture (Let me choose For as I am, I live upon the rack”).  The dialogue continues along this vein, with Bassanio finally shouting,

O happy torment, when my torturer
Doth teach me answers for deliverance!
But let me to my fortune and the caskets.

It is then that Bassanio delivers the soliloquy from which the following quote is taken:

Look on beauty,
And you shall see 'tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; 

As noted above, the key to choosing wisely among the three caskets is wisdom.  Portia’s father wished that his daughter would marry the proper gentleman with values consistent with his own.  This meant humility, reason, and so on.  Portia understands this, and is trying to convey to Bassanio that the key to her hand in marriage lies in grasping the value of pure love over that of gold or silver. When Bassanio says “Look on beauty, and you shall see ‘tis purchased by the weight,” he is indicating that he finally “gets it,” suggesting the lead casket – lead weighing a lot – is more valuable than gold or silver for present purposes.  Now, the key to fully understanding the above quote and its reference to “snaky golden locks” lies in Portia’s earlier reference to the mythical Hercules: Go, Hercules!

Prior to his reference to “snaky golden locks,” Bassanio has seized upon Portia’s reference to Hercules, noting that false fronts featuring superficial displays of wealth, for example, gold, can conceal unpleasant truths.  Weak men may cower behind facial hair intended to make them appear more formidable than they actually are:

How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars; . . .

The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest. Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;

Bassanio understands what Portia has been trying to communicate without violating the integrity of her late father’s process.  He understands that the key to happiness, and to Portia’s hand in marriage, rests in his recognition of what really constitutes value.

Stephen Holliday eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I'd like to add a couple of comments to the fine response above.

The "snaky golden locks" might actually be a reference to the Greek mythological character Medusa, who was once a beautiful young girl turned by Hera into a monster.  Medusa's beautiful hair became writhing snakes, and Medusa's beauty was turned into such a horror that looking upon her turned men into stone.

The point of these lines, like the reference to cowards who imitate Hercules and Mars or women who become beautiful by wearing cosmetics, is that the hair, which appears to be beautiful on the surface, actually comes from the heads of dead women--in the form of wigs to be worn by the living.  The "dowry of a second head" refers to the original owner of the hair, a dead woman whose skull is "now in the sepulchre."  The beautiful hair, like the attractive caskets, is only beautiful on the surface and hides a very unpleasant interior.

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The Merchant of Venice

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