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In Act III, Scene II of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio and Portia are engaged in a protracted and torturous conversation regarding the test of wisdom and morality placed before Portia by her deceased father’s will. In that will, Portia’s late father specified that his daughter could only marry a suitor who chose correctly among three caskets, one each of gold, silver and lead. Portia wants to marry Bassanio and so desperately hopes he chooses the correct casket. She cannot cheat the process set forth in her father’s will, but tries gallantly to manipulate her chosen beau’s thought process so as to facilitate the correct choice on Bassanio’s part. Rising to the challenge, Bassanio contemplates the challenge before him, wisely equating the highly valuable precious metals of which two caskets are constructed against the more mundane one constructed of lead. In so doing, he correctly suggests that the gold and silver casks are symbols of man’s folly rather than treasures to be idolized. It is in this context that he makes the following statement:
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!
With his reference to Midas – mythical figure associated with unbridled greed whose wish for endless supplies of gold foretells his destruction – Bassanio is acknowledging that Portia’s father, wise man that he was, deliberately associated gold and silver with human frailties, leading Bassanio to correctly choose the lead casket.
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