The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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The constraints and implications of Portia's "lottery of destiny" in The Merchant of Venice

Summary:

In The Merchant of Venice, Portia's "lottery of destiny" refers to her father's will, which dictates that her suitor must choose correctly from three caskets to marry her. This constraint limits her autonomy, as she cannot choose her own husband, and it implies that love and marriage are subject to chance rather than personal choice.

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In Act 2, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, how does the lottery of Portia's destiny limit her choices? Was Portia's father prudent to arrange her marriage this way?

Portia’s father keeps an unusual, strange lottery to seek a husband for her. Portia calls this lottery as the lottery of her destiny because this lottery will decide her future husband (And as we know, since ancient times, a husband is thought to be a woman’s destiny).

In the lottery, her father keeps three caskets or boxes (a box of gold, a box of silver and a box of lead) and all the men who want to marry Portia have to choose one of them. The trick is that only one of these boxes has Portia’s portrait in it. The person who choses the correct box, i.e. the one with Portia’s portrait in it, will get to marry her. Her father keeps another condition in this game. He says that if a person chooses the wrong box, he cannot marry anyone else in life. He thinks that such a condition will fitter out any one who isn’t serious about marrying her.

A lottery leaves everything to chance and luck and, thus, prevents Portia from voluntarily choosing the suitor she likes. She is forced by her father to accept the person who wins the lottery.

But, if my father had not scanted me,
And hedg'd me by his wit, to yield myself
His wife, who wins me by that means I told you,

The Prince of Morocco tells Portia that he looks great and is quite a demanded guy amongst pretty ladies of his country. Portia delivers the above-mentioned lines in reply to the Moroccan prince. She tells him that her choice is not considered at all in her father’s plan and everything is left to chance. So even if he is good looking and is able to impress her, this doesn't make any difference. She further says that in case her father wouldn’t have restricted and confined her with his wit and plan, then he would have got an equal chance to woo and marry her.

Although Portia’s father wants to find her the best person, the challenge he devises is absurd and leaves everything to sheer luck and chance. As a reader, we know that such a method to find a husband for any girl is wrong. Besides, Portia already loves someone. So it appears that Portia’s father acts imprudently in this situation.

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In Act 2, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice, what is the lottery of Portia's destiny and how does it limit her freedom to choose? How wise was her father's arrangement?

The essence of this scene is Portia's inability to choose a husband based on love and attraction and, more important, she recognizes that her larger fate is not in her control:

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. . . .

Portia acknowledges that her choice of husband has nothing to do with attraction ("nice direction of a maiden's eyes") but is in the control of destiny or fate in the form of the lottery her father has created in order to "choose" her husband.  In a larger sense, however, Portia is articulating the realization that one of the most important events in her life--the selection of her husband, which will determine the quality of her life going forward--is in the hands of destiny or fate--in other words, nothing she can do will have an effect on the outcome.

Portia's lack of control, and her own role in that lack of control,  becomes even more apparent in the next several lines:

But if my father had not scanted me/And hedg'd me by his wit, to yield myself/His wife who wins me by that means I told you. . . .

The word scanted is a form of scanned, which, in Elizabethan times, meant "to examine closely,"  Portia is complaining that she would have been better off had her father not questioned her closely about her feelings,  and then used his wit to convince her to go along with the idea  of the lottery.  She is undoubtedly wishing that she had told her father how she really feels about the lottery.  It is worth noting here that Portia's situation--not being able to choose her marriage partner--was fairly standard Elizabethan marriage practice among the middle and upper classes--marriages were not viewed as "love matches" but were more often the result of what, in effect, was a business decision on the parents' part to make sure their children would marry advantageously.  In short, love was not part of a parent's calculation when choosing a mate for his or her child.

Shylock's lottery accomplishes at least two important goals: 1) By using a lottery for the eligible suitors, Shylock avoids the complications inherent in showing favoritism to one family.  And from a business perspective, this is an important success since he depends on the willingness of others to do business with him--the lottery, because it is based on chance, takes away Shylock's potential for alienating someone powerful; 2)  Shylock's use of the lottery also takes away his responsibility to his daughter--if the lottery his based on chance, and Portia's marriage turns out badly, Shylock is absolved from responsibility because destiny or fate is the responsible party.

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In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, how does Portia's "lottery of destiny" limit her freedom of choice?

Reference is from Act 2, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

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.

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