What kind of a person is the Prince of Morocco in The Merchant of Venice, and what does Portia think of him?

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scarletpimpernel eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Act 2, Scene 1 of the play opens with the Prince arriving in Belmont.  While the Prince is confident in his "valiant" abilities and personality, he is concerned that Portia will not want him as a husband because of his race.  His first words in the play are,

" 'Mislike me not for my complexion,/ The shadowed livery of the burnished sun . . .' " (2.1.1-2).

Portia informs the Prince that she is not at liberty to choose any of her suitors.  According to her father's wishes, she must marry whoever first chooses the correct box.  She does tell him,

" 'Yourself, renowned prince, then stood as fair/ As any comer I have looked on yet' " (2.1.20-21).

She wants to assure him that he should not take it personally if he does not get to marry her.  Because of her father's eccentric casket test, all suitors have an equal opportunity to choose the right box and win Portia's hand in marriage.

After Scene 1, Shakespeare interrupts Morocco's test with the story of Jessica betraying her father and eloping with the man of her choice.  The bard does so to contrast Portia's obedience to her late father with Jessica's rebellion against her living father.  When Act 2, Scene7 opens, the Prince is let into the casket room to make his choice.  His deliberation over the caskets and his ultimate choice demonstrate that he is respectful of Portia's worth, but his choicealso illustrates his tendency to judge based on the exterior (perhaps this is why he is so worried about others judging him based on his appearance), for he chooses the gold casket for exactly the reasons Portia's father lists in the riddle.  When he discovers that he will return to Morocco emptyhanded, he bemoans his choice, and Portia says after he leaves,

" 'A gentle riddance! Draw the curtains, go./ Let all of his complexion choose me so' " (2.7.86-87).

Portia's use of the word "gentle" shows that she would not havedetested being married to the Prince (even though she is not in love with him) and that she is sympathetic toward him.  Her last words are more puzzling--her use of "complexion" could refer to his demeanor, not his appearance, and the idea that if he bases all decisions on the exterior that she would rather not be married to him or anyone else who places such importance on superficial elements. However, if one considers Shakespeare's critique of racism toward Jews in this play and towards Moors in Othello, he could be stressing the fact that white Europeans--no matter how wise or sophisticated--still practiced exclusion of other races/cultures.

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The Merchant of Venice

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