In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Arragon, who appears in only one scene in the play, is the second of Portia's suitors who submits to the casket test devised by Portia's father to determine his suitability to be Portia's husband.
The Prince of Arragon chooses the second of the three caskets, the silver casket, after the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket, and before Bassanio chooses the lead casket, which provides the audience with a contrast in character between the two men.
The Prince of Arragon is arrogant, as his name would lead the audience to believe, but not as arrogant and self-centered as the Prince of Morocco, who constantly boasts about his physical prowess and his superhuman accomplishments.
The Prince of Arragon is considerably more arrogant and self-centered than Bassanio, Portia's own choice to be her husband, but the Prince has some redeeming qualities which make him more desirable for Portia than the Prince of Morocco, but less suitable than Bassanio. The Prince of Arragon makes no boasts as does the Prince of Morocco, and he reveals his character only in his deliberations over which casket to choose, and in his reaction to what is shown to him by his choice.
Although the Prince initially rejects the lead casket out of hand because of its simple, plain appearance—"You shall look fairer" (2.9.21), the Prince says, before he would choose it—he makes his choice among the gold, silver, and lead caskets based solely on the inscriptions.
The Prince of Arragon is more thoughtful and prudent than the Prince of Morocco, but he's no less influenced by his own arrogant personality in his choice of casket. The Prince rejects the gold casket because its inscription, "Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire" (2.9.23), implies to the Prince that the choice of the gold casket could be made by anyone in "the fool multitude, that choose by show" (2.9.25), meaning anyone who is impressed by the gold casket itself as a desirable object.
The Prince considers himself above such base desires, and he doesn't want to be considered as one of the lowly, common people, "the fool multitude" (2.9.25), the "common spirits" (2.9.31), and the "barbarous multitudes" (2.9.32) who the Prince believes would make such a choice.
The inscription on the lead casket, “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath” (2.9.20), is far too ominous for the Prince, and he's simply not prepared to "hazard all he hath," even for Portia's hand in marriage.
The inscription on the silver casket, "Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves" (2.9.35) appeals to the Prince because it speaks to his own self-image as a superior person who deserves the best in life because he represents the best in "dignity" (2.9.39), in "estates, degrees, and offices" (2.9.40), in "honour" (2.9.41), and in his ability to command (2.9.44).
The Prince considers it his fate, his right, his reward, his just deserts—"I will assume desert" (2.9.50)—to be Portia's husband, so he chooses the silver casket. When he opens it, he's stunned speechless to see "a portrait of a blinking idiot" (2.9.53) staring back at him. After a moment, the Prince recovers from the shock, but he simply can't believe that he made a wrong choice:
Did I deserve no more than a fool's head?
Is that my prize? are my deserts no better? (2.9.58–59).
The Prince reads aloud the poem that accompanies the picture of the "blinking idiot." which refers to the Prince three times as a fool, and by his own prophetic words, a member of the "fool multitude" he previously derided as those beneath his own superior qualities.
The first reference to the prince is in Act I, Scene 2, when Portia and Nerissa, her lady in waiting, are discussing Portia's suitors. Each one is individually mentioned by Nerissa, with Portia providing insight into her sentiments about each man. Nerissa refers to the Prince of Arragon as the 'Neapolitan prince.' It is clear Portia does not like him much, as we can read in her comment:
Ay, that's a colt indeed, for he doth nothing but
talk of his horse; and he makes it a great
appropriation to his own good parts, that he can
shoe him himself. I am much afeard my lady his
mother played false with a smith.
Portia seems to believe the prince is obsessed with his horse. He talks about it incessantly and is very proud he can shoe it himself. Portia mocks the prince and says she believes his peculiar behavior could only be because he was most likely the result of an affair between his mother and a blacksmith.
In Act II, Scene 9, we learn more about the Prince of Arragon when he chooses a casket. His name seems to suit his personality and one can easily assume 'Arragon' is a deliberate play on 'arrogant,' since the prince displays a conceited opinion of himself as can be inferred from his response to the inscription on the lead casket:
'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'
You shall look fairer, ere I give or hazard.
The Prince of Arragon's remark is quite offensive, since he states that Portia should either be more beautiful, lighter in complexion, or more generous before the prince will be moved to give and risk everything he has. When he looks at the inscription on the gold casket, his response is supercilious:
'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.'
What many men desire! that 'many' may be meant
By the fool multitude, that choose by show...
...I will not choose what many men desire,
Because I will not jump with common spirits
And rank me with the barbarous multitudes.
It is obvious the prince deems himself superior to other people, whom he refers to as 'barbarous multitudes.' As a result, the prince rejects the gold casket, claiming he is not a commoner who is easily led by what he sees on the outside and ignores the true value of what is inside.
When the prince reads the inscription on the silver casket, he reveals a pompous attitude, for he is quite condescending and patronizing. He boorishly sermonizes about the value of being rewarded with what one deserves and not obtaining merit by corrupt means. Apparently, the prince forgets he was born into wealth and privilege without having to work for those advantages. His remarks, therefore, come across as quite hypocritical.
When he decides on the silver casket, the prince clearly indicates his superiority complex, as he assumes he is entitled to Portia's hand. He says, "I will assume desert," which means he thinks he deserves to be the one who gets Portia. In the end, though, the prince is honest enough to admit having been foolish. He states he has become twice as foolish as he was when he arrived.
With one fool's head I came to woo,
But I go away with two.