The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Why did Portia's father devise the three caskets lottery in The Merchant of Venice?

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Portia's father devised the lottery involving three caskets in The Merchant of Venice to protect his daughter from marrying a superficial man seeking her for her wealth and beauty and ensure that a worthy suitor would win her hand in marriage. The lottery was devised to expose and exclude greedy, materialistic men. Portia's father knew that many eligible bachelors would seek his daughter's hand and designed the lottery to test their values.

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Portia is a wealthy, obedient heiress whose deceased father devised a lottery consisting of three caskets and several riddles to guarantee that she would marry a genuine, loving man. Initially, Portia laments her lack of agency and complains to Nerissa that she can neither choose nor deny her future husband. Portia is fed up with the numerous suitors vying for her hand in marriage and fears that she will be forced to marry an unattractive, self-centered man.

Nerissa sympathizes with Portia's difficult situation but reminds her that her father was a virtuous, holy man with good intentions. Nerissa elaborates on the lottery and encourages Portia to trust the process. The lottery was specifically designed to protect Portia from greedy men and prevent her from marrying an undeserving suitor.

Portia's father was wise, and he knew that his daughter would be highly coveted for her beauty and wealth, which are both external, superficial attributes. He did not want a shallow, materialistic man winning his daughter's hand in marriage, so he devised the lottery to ensure a worthy suitor would marry Portia. Portia's father planned to deceive the suitors by misleading them with gold and silver caskets. Ironically, a fortune-hunter like Bassanio is able to solve the riddle of the caskets, and Portia marries the man of her dreams. Although Bassanio's intentions were to acquire Portia's wealth, he proved to be a genuine, worthy suitor.

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In establishing what Portia calls (Act II, Scene 1) “the lottery of my destiny,” her father removed much of her fate from her own decision. Because he was a good man as well as a wealthy man, he wanted to ensure that his daughter would remain well-off after he passed away. He also adhered to the predominant idea of the day (and one of the play’s themes), that love makes lovers do foolish things. Because Portia’s husband would have access to her fortune, he created the three caskets with very different exteriors. He apparently reasoned that their relative appeal to the suitors was likely to attract the right kind of man. It also seems, throughout the play, that everyone believes in fate so that the outcome may be considered predetermined.

Portia is a smart, sensible young woman. As she is proper and not rebellious, she is not necessarily happy about her father’s decision, but she is committed to abide by it.

In act I, scene 2, in her first conversation with her maid Nerissa, the two women discuss the topic extensively. Portia laments that she can neither choose nor refuse, "so is the will of a living daughter curbed/ by the will of a dead father.” Yet she does commit to abiding by his wishes:

“If I live to be as old as Sibylla, I will die as

chaste as Diana, unless I be obtained by the manner

of my father's will.”

Portia’s father, Nerissa notes, was “ever virtuous,” and as a holy man, he had a good inspiration; she has confidence in the idea that the correct chooser will be the one who truly loves Portia.

…the lottery,

that he hath devised in these three chests of gold,

silver and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning

chooses you, will, no doubt, never be chosen by any

rightly but one who shall rightly love.

Portia also subscribes to the dominant idea that love clouds the judgment. At the point when the man she loves is about to make his choice, she comments: “O love,/ Be moderate; allay thy ecstasy,/ In measure rein thy joy….”

Although his method is unusual, it turns out that her father had the right instincts, as revealed by the messages inside the caskets when opened. The gold message speaks about falsity and greed, and the silver one criticizes vanity.

Bassanio, who correctly chooses the lead casket, is the one who had figured out the clue that appearances are deceiving: “So may the outward shows be least themselves:/ The world is still deceived with ornament.” When he opens the lead casket, that is precisely the message. “You that choose not by the view,/ Chance as fair and choose as true!”

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Portia's father knew that she was an intelligent, independent-spirited young lady. He also knew that as a very beautiful woman from a good family, she would attract more than her fair share of suitors. He wanted to make sure, therefore, that one day she would marry well, attracting the right kind of man, and not some shameless gold-digger.

That's why he devised such an elaborate plan to sort the wheat from the chaff. The challenge of the three caskets puts a premium on intelligence, discernment, and devotion, just the kind of qualities that Portia looks for in a man. Portia's father set up the test in such a way that those who are only interested in his daughter's money will be so dazzled by the prospect of riches that they'll fail to read between the lines of each message inside the casket. Then they'll make the wrong choice of casket, and the last man standing will be the one to take Portia's hand in marriage.

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