William Shakespeare lived in a very different time, the late-16th to early 17th Century. The concept of arranged marriages among and between members of the upper classes of England, as with much of the rest of the “civilized” world was very common, and appears as a theme or subtext of...
William Shakespeare lived in a very different time, the late-16th to early 17th Century. The concept of arranged marriages among and between members of the upper classes of England, as with much of the rest of the “civilized” world was very common, and appears as a theme or subtext of many plays written during that era. The Merchant of Venice is no exception. In fact, the concept of arranged marriages is very much a part of Shakespeare’s play. The character Portia is a young, beautiful heiress whose fate in marriage has been tied in her father’s will to a game of chance in which potential suitors must correctly choose among three caskets within one of which is a portrait of Portia. The one who correctly selects the casket in which the portrait is concealed wins her hand in marriage – apparently whether she is agreeable to that situation or not. It is within this context that the exchange between the semitic royal, Prince of Morocco and the fair Portia takes place at the beginning of Act II. The prince is clearly among the more competitive of Portia’s suitors, but knows that his Arab heritage and dark skin may be a hindrance in his efforts at wooing the Venetian girl.
Prince of Morocco: Mislike me not for my complexion, The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun, To whom I am a neighbour and near bred. Bring me the fairest creature northward born, Where Phoebus’ fire scarce thaws the icicles, And let us make incision for your love, To prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine. I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine Hath fear’d the valiant: by my love I swear The best-regarded virgins of our clime Have loved it too: I would not change this hue, Except to steal your thoughts, my gentle queen.”
Portia: “ . . .the lottery of my destiny Bars me the right of voluntary choosing:”
Portia is clearly despondent at the notion that her destiny is not in her own hands, and that her father’s will has bound her to what almost certainly will be a loveless marriage. The “lottery” to which she refers is the arrangement involving the game of chance and the portrait concealed in one of three caskets. Portia loves Bassanio, on whose behalf the entire affair involving Shylock and Antonio has taken place, but knows that other suitors may prevail in the contest for her hand in marriage.