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In Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio and Portia are having one of literature’s great torturous discussions regarding their respective fates. Each loves the other, but are forbidden from carrying those feelings towards their logical conclusion unless or until Bassanio correctly selects among the three caskets inside one of which lies the key to Portia’s hand in marriage. One casket is made of gold, another of silver, and the third of lead. Unlike other suitors for Portia’s hand, Bassanio is reflective, and considers the hidden truths that may lie behind the most magnificent of cloaks. He is tormented by the challenge that stands before him, and Portia, while desperately hoping for the right outcome, prepares for the worst by ordering that music be played during this traumatic scene. Should Bassanio choose correctly, the music will accompany the festivities to follow; should he choose incorrectly, he will be escorted from the premises to the sounds of soothing music. The pressure is on Bassanio, and it is in this context that he delivers the impassioned speech about the perils of making a decision based solely upon outward appearances. [Side note: in order to understand the reference to an “Indian beauty,” one must recognize the enduring racism endemic in that society; hence, the reference is intended as one of contrast]:
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
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;
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge
'Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead,
Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;
And here choose I; joy be the consequence!
Bassanio’s comment that “Thus ornament is but the guiled shore to a most dangerous sea” is a warning against misjudging the dangers of a turbulent ocean because one is preoccupied with the beauty of the shore in the distance. Outward appearance may be deceiving.
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