The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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How is the theme of "outward show" reflected in Bassanio's casket choice in The Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 2?

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In his monologue, Bassanio develops the theme of outward show by making classical allusions and references to the Bible. In relation to the former, he states that many people appear outwardly strong—like Mars, the Roman god of war, or the Greek mythological hero, Hercules—but in actual fact turn out to be complete cowards:

How many cowards whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,
Who, inward searched, have livers white as milk,
And these assume but valor’s excrement
To render them redoubted. (Act III, Scene ii)

Bassanio also refers to the unfortunate habit—doubtless one that Shylock will recognize through his daily interactions with Christians—of people using the Bible to justify acts of evil. In this way, Scripture can cynically be used as a means of covering up every conceivable sin. Those who do this may be Christian on the outside, but deep down, they're really no such thing.

Later on his monologue, Bassanio makes another classical allusion as he refuses to choose the gold box as part of the casket test. He justifies his rejection of the box on the grounds that it is something that King Midas wouldn't eat, i.e. that it is gaudy and useless and will do him no good, just like the king who turned everything he touched into gold, including his food.

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We see a particular theme central to the courtship of Portia: that theme being the deceptive nature of outward appearances.

To select a worthy groom for his daughter, Portia's father designed a test by which a suitor would have a choice between three boxes. The first, gold, promises that the said suitor "shall gain what many men desire," while the second, silver, promises that he "shall get as much as he deserves," while the final one, "dull lead," demands that one "give and hazzard all he hath."

Over the course of the play, we see the first two boxes chosen respectively by two separate suitors (the Princes of Morocco and Aragon), and, in both cases, the suitors are rebuked for the choice they selected. As the Prince of Morocco famously reads, "all that glitters is not gold."

Now, the question emerges, how does this relate to Bassanio's speech? Note, Bassanio gives this speech while making his own attempt at this test. Thus, this entire speech is shaped by the context of what has already happened in the scenes which preceded it and the themes established therein: looking beyond surface appearances in favor of the truth found beneath them. As the speech states:

There is no vice so simple but assumes

Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.

How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false

. . . wear yet upon their chins

The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars

Thus, we come to the choice of the caskets, and what I personally find particularly noteworthy is Bassanio's rejection of "gaudy gold, / Hard food for Midas" (and consider that particular reference; how the myth of Midas proceeds). As Bassanio says of lead, "thy plainless moves me more than eloquence."

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I would start an essay like this by looking for moments where I could do a close reading. The three caskets are each made of a different material (gold, silver, and lead) and each has an inscription. Bassanio's speech touches on ideas such as distrusting outwardly appearances and refusing to take things at face value. My suggestion would be to find a line or two where he talks about distrust—either of the inscriptions or of the caskets themselves—and do a close reading. Look carefully at Bassano's diction and tone, and start to explain their significance in relation to the theme of "outward show." I would also suggest doing a close reading of one to two of Bassanio's quotes and, if you have space, a close reading of the inscriptions.

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