September 23, 2008

All That Glisters is Not Gold

In the play, The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare, we find a major theme portrayed in the struggle to distinguish between appearances and reality. The ability to choose wisely, to distinguish between what appears to be valuable and what really is so, depends not on intelligence, but on something deeper. In this play it is love, not for glory, or nobility of place, or wealth, but for another human being that brings true happiness and joy.

This theme is expressed in the choosing of one of three caskets to win the hand in marriage the beautiful yet witty Portia, who is the wealthy heiress of Belmont. The Prince of Morocco, one of Portia’s numerous suitors, chooses the gold cast because it is made of the most precious metal and is inscribed with, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” Upon opening the casket, Morocco is so shocked he calls upon hell when he finds a skull staring back at him instead of Portia’s portrait. He discovers a scrolls that instructs, “All that glister is not gold; Often have you heard that told. Many a man his life hath sold but my outside to behold. Glided tombs do worms in fold.” The Prince of Morocco is only interested in the glory that winning Portia’s hand in marriage would have brought him, and so he chooses unwisely.

The next suitor of Portia we watch is the arrogant Spanish Prince of Arragon. He decides upon the sliver casket because the precious metal’s inscription, which reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” But when he opens this casket he exclaims, “What’s here? The portrait of a blinking idiot…do I deserve no more than a fool’s head?” The Prince of Arragon is blinded by his own self-importance and pride and thus he also chooses unwisely.

Unlike the previous two suitors, Bassanio does not set his heart upon glory or wealth. He has to borrow the money from is friend, Antonio to even attempt to court Portia. He rejects the golden casket stating that gold is “hard food for Midas.” He turns away from the silver casket because silver is the “common drudge,”’ a medium of exchange, a means rather than an end. And so Bassanio finally comes to choose the least likely looking casket – the leaden one – which bears the inscription, “who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” He finds Portia’s portrait in the casket and is rewarded with the chance to marry her because of his love for her and his willingness to sacrifice all he has.

Shylock, a rich Jewish merchant, is the villain of the play because his heart is set on only his possessions. When he finds he only daughter, Jessica has not only abandoned him, but also has stolen much of his wealth when she elopes with a Christian, he morns over the lost of both interchangeably. Shylock cries out, “My Daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!” in anguish. Although Shylock may be the most intelligent character in the play, he finds himself utterly alone. He loses his wealth, this daughter, and his faith. Shylock’s obsession for acquiring wealth blinds him with such hatred that he is unable to distinguish between what appears to be valuable and what really is so.

Are our hearts set upon glory, pride, wealth, or upon the love we have for others? Which will bring us lasting happiness and joy? What do each of us value most…