The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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In William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia's father's will stipulates that her marriage involve a lottery, to which she refers in act 2, scene 1. How prudent was Portia's father to have arranged her marriage through a lottery? Is Portia's statement that the Prince of Morocco stands as fair a chance as the other suitors true?

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Shakespeare’s depiction of life among the well-to-do in 17th Century Venice is a portrait of snobbery and repressive tradition in which the fate of women is left to the discretion of men.  In the case of the heiress Portia, her late-father’s will stipulated that she marry the suitor who correctly selected among three caskets, inside one of which was a portrait of Portia.  How wise was her father’s decision to have her status determined by the outcome of a lottery should be viewed in the context of the time and place in which The Merchant of Venice was written.  Even viewed through the prism of the era in which the story takes place, however, it is hard, if not impossible, to conclude that Portia’s father used an intelligent or insightful system for determining with whom his daughter would live her life.  Arranged marriages in which both families knew each other and could be certain that the marriage would prove profitable, if loveless, were of questionable wisdom in terms of eliminating the role of chance and affection in determining the fate of one’s offspring.  Employing a lottery system, however, can only be viewed as dehumanizing and cruel, as Portia is being denied her most basic of rights – to choose how to live her life and with whom.  Even in the context of the time and place depicted, her father’s decision can only be viewed as wrong from both the moral and practical perspectives.

With respect to whether the Prince of Morocco has an even chance at prevailing in the lottery, Portia’s response to him at the beginning of Act II, Scene 1 indicates that the answer is “yes”:

PORTIA “In terms of choice I am not solely led by nice direction of a maiden’s eyes; Besides, the lottery of my destiny Bars me the right of voluntary choosing: But if my father had not scanted me and hedged me by his wit, to yield myself His wife who wins me by that means I told you, Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair As any comer I have look’d on yet for my affection.”

Whether Portia is delighted with the prospect of marriage to the prince, however, may be another matter.  As he absorbs the import of Portia’s statement to the effect that he is a legitimate candidate for her hand in marriage, Portia replies in a way that suggests she is less-than-thrilled with that possibility:

MOROCCO “Even for that I thank you: Therefore, I pray you, lead me to the caskets To try my fortune. . .”

PORTIA “You must take your chance, And either not attempt to choose at all Or swear before you choose, if you choose wrong Never to speak to lady afterward In way of marriage . . .”

MOROCCO Nor will not. Come, bring me unto my chance.

PORTIA First, forward to the temple: after dinner Your hazard shall be made.

MOROCCO Good fortune then! To make me blest or cursed’st among men.”

Portia very much wants to marry Bassanio.  The prospects that her fate will be decided on the basis of a lottery, therefore, is anathema to the young heiress.  To the extent that she schemes through the use of disguises and subterfuge to thwart her father's will, however, is a strong indication that the Prince of Morocco does not, in fact, stand an equal chance at winning her hand in marriage.

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