Summary and Analysis
At Belmont, Portia would like Bassanio to delay before he chooses one of the caskets. Already she has fallen in love with him, and she fears the outcome. She asks him to "tarry," to "pause a day or two," to "forbear awhile"; anything, she tells him, to keep him from possibly choosing the wrong casket. Bassanio, however, begs to choose one of them. His anxiety is too great. If he waits, it is as though he "lives on the rack." Thus Portia acquiesces and tells her servants that this choice is no ordinary choice; therefore, she would like music to be played "while he doth make his choice."
The song which is sung, beginning "Tell me where is fancy bred," has ominous lyrics. Bassanio surveys the caskets, reads their inscriptions, and is reminded by the background music that "fancy" is sometimes bred in the heart and is sometimes bred in the head. The words seem to warn him not to judge by external appearance. Consequently, Bassanio rejects the golden casket; it is a symbol for all "outward shows"; likewise, he rejects the silver casket, calling it a "common drudge / 'Tween man and man." Instead, he chooses the casket made of "meagre lead," which is the least attractive of the caskets — if they are judged by appearance alone.
When Bassanio's choice is made, Portia prays in an aside for help in containing her emotions. She watches rapturously as Bassanio opens the lead casket and finds in it a picture of Portia, which, though beautifully painted, fails to do her justice, in Bassanio's opinion. Alongside Portia's portrait, there is a scroll which tells him, "Turn you where your lady is / And claim her with a loving kiss." Still giddy from his success, Bassanio does so, and Portia, who only a moment before was mistress of herself and of all her possessions, now commits herself and all she owns to her new lord. She also presents him with a ring, a symbol of their union, which he is never to "part from, lose, or give away." Bassanio promises to wear the ring as long as he lives.
Nerissa and Gratiano congratulate the lovers and announce that they also have made a match and ask permission to be married at the wedding ceremony of Portia and Bassanio. Portia agrees to the double wedding, and Gratiano boastfully wagers that he and Nerissa produce a boy before they do.
While the lovers are enjoying their happiness, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salerio arrive. Salerio says that he has come with a letter from Antonio to Bassanio, and that he met Lorenzo and Jessica, whom he persuaded to come with him. As Portia welcomes her fiancé's old friends, Bassanio opens Antonio's letter. He reads it, and Portia notices that he has turned pale; the letter contains bad news. She begs him to share the cause of his anguish, and he tells her that he has just read "the unpleasant'st words / That ever blotted paper." He confesses that he is deeply in debt to "a dear friend" who in turn is in debt to a dangerous enemy. Turning to Salerio, Bassanio asks, "But is it true? . . . Hath all his ventures fail'd?" Has not a single one of Antonio's ships returned safely? Not one, Salerio replies, and besides, even if Antonio now had the money to repay Shylock it would do no good, for Shylock is already boasting of how he will demand "justice" and the payment of the penalty for the forfeited bond. Jessica testifies to her father's determination to "have Antonio's flesh" rather than accept "twenty times the value of the sum" that Antonio owes.
When Portia understands that it is Bassanio's "dear friend that is thus in trouble," she offers to pay any amount to prevent his suffering "through Bassanio's fault." But first, she and Bassanio will be married and then immediately afterwards he must go to Antonio's aid, "for never shall you lie by Portia's side / With an unquiet soul." In Bassanio's absence, she and Nerissa "will live as maids and widows." Bassanio then reads to Portia the full contents of Antonio's letter. Antonio says that he wishes only to see Bassanio before he dies; his plans "have all miscarried," he says; his "creditors grow cruel"; his "estate is very low"; and his "bond to the Jew is forfeit." Yet, Antonio says, all debts between him and Bassanio are "cleared," and he says that he wishes only "that I might but see you at my death." Portia comprehends the gravity of the situation. Bassanio must leave at once. "O love, dispatch all business, and be gone!" she tells him, as her newly bethrothed lover makes ready to leave for Venice.
This long scene brings the casket story to its climax with Bassanio's choice. It begins with Portia's speech begging Bassanio to delay in making his choice of caskets, "for in choosing wrong / I lose your company." Essentially, this speech is evidence for us of Portia's love for Bassanio, and the charm of her speech lies in the fact that Portia cannot openly admit her love. She continues, and her attempts to verbally circumvent stating outright her feelings for Bassanio lead her to utter absolute nonsense. She declares: "One half of me is yours, the other half yours — / Mine own I would say; but if mine, then yours, / And so all yours!" This makes absolutely no sense at all; she is nearly giving in to her urge to tell Bassanio directly of her love for him.
Bassanio is obviously relieved to see that his love is returned. He speaks of feeling as though he were strained tautly on the rack. This admission, in turn, relieves Portia's anxiety somewhat, and her old spirit of jesting returns and she wittily picks up on Bassanio's choice of metaphor and teases him. This witty wordplay has the effect of delaying the choice of caskets and further allowing Portia to relax and display her spirit and sense of wit. We are never allowed to forget her intelligence because this element will be the key ingredient in the play's climactic scene. Bassanio moves to the caskets, and Portia begins a lovely speech, built around the notion of sacrifice. Her phrase "I stand for sacrifice" is particularly apt. Twice, we have watched Portia prepare to become a sort of sacrificial victim, as it were, to unwanted suitors. She has not complained, but we now see that her role in this casket contest contains special intensity. Should Bassanio choose wrongly, she will literally be a sacrifice to a later, unloved husband, as well as being forever a victim of unfulfilled love.
The central idea in the song that is used as background music while Bassanio is making his choice of caskets focuses on the word "fancy." Fancy, for Elizabethans, carried the meaning of whimsical affection. Bassanio picks up on this idea and elaborates on it when he meditates on the way in which "outward shows" mislead or deceive the observer. He extends this perception to law, religion, military honor, and physical beauty.
We are thus reminded of the way in which the Princes of Morocco and Arragon were taken in by the outer appearance of the gold and silver caskets. Bassanio rejects both of these caskets, and his reasons are significant in the total meaning of the play. He calls gold "hard food for Midas"; Midas imagined that gold itself could be something nutritive or lifegiving, and he starved to death for his mistake. This causes us to think of the play's Midas-figure — Shylock, for whom wealth is, in itself, something of final, ultimate value. Bassanio calls silver the "common drudge / 'Tween man and man." Although silver is valued as a precious metal, more often than not it is a medium of exchange — money — and again, we think of Shylock's misplaced values, which make silver an end in itself. And so Bassanio finally comes to choose the least likely looking casket — the leaden one — and, of course, his choice is the right one.
Both Bassanio's speech and his choice of caskets touch on one of the central themes of the play — the contrast between appearance and reality; what appears to be valuable (gold and silver) turns out to be worthless, and what appears to be worthless (lead) turns out to be valuable. If we ask ourselves why Bassanio is enabled to judge rightly when others fail, the answer is simply that his motive is love, rather than pride or the desire for worldly gain.
Another idea that Shakespeare is developing here is concerned, again, with wealth. Bassanio sees wealth as useful only in securing love and happiness. Bassanio's conduct suggests that the only use for wealth, for "all that he hath," is in giving or risking it in the pursuit of happiness, not in hoarding it or worshipping it for its own sake.
The exchange of vows between Portia and Bassanio is conducted at an intense and exalted level. But because the play is a romantic comedy, its tone becomes lighter when Gratiano reveals that now that Bassanio has won Portia, he has won Nerissa, and his wooing is presented in bold contrast to Bassanio. Gratiano has worked at it "until I sweat again," and he offers to bet that he and Nerissa will be the first of the two couples to produce a child, which rounds off the whole sequence with a typical coarse jest. The Elizabethans would have loved this ribald touch. Portia and Bassanio have presented their idyllic romantic love as something ideal; Gratiano readjusts the balance by the reminder that love is a physical as well as a spiritual union. So far, Venice and Belmont — the world of mercantile ventures and the world of love — have been kept separate. Now, with the arrival of Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salerino from Venice, these two worlds meet, and the evils of wealth, spawned in Venice, disrupt the happy serenity of Belmont. The news of Antonio's danger puts a fearful obstacle in the way of the fulfillment of the play's love story, for now Bassanio is torn by an agonizing conflict between his love and loyalty toward his new wife and his love and loyalty to his old friend Antonio.
Indicative of Portia's rare character in this scene is her immediate reaction to the crisis at hand. She makes a decision and immediately attempts to put it into effect. Bassanio, she says, must "First go with me to church and call me wife, / And then away to Venice to your friend!" With such decisive ingenuity, it comes as no real surprise to us later when she is able both to conceive and successfully execute the strategy of the lawyer's disguise and the courtroom victory over Shylock.