Merchant of Venice’s Bassanio and Portia in Search of Self

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

Bassanio and Portia are in love, and throughout their love story and their efforts to marry each other, they try to find their “selves”. They face the same question, but they have different approaches and goals for answering it. As it is a complicated question and the issue can relate to other people as well, their journeys may be more difficult than they expect.

Bassanio (John Farmanesh-Bocca) and Portia (Julie Hughett) from the Pacific Repertory Theatre production of "The Merchant of Venice", staged at the Outdoor Forest Theater in Carmel, CA in 1995.
Bassanio and Portia share a love story that helps them both overcome their challenge of identity and become who they want. (Image: Pacific Repertory Theatre/Smatprt/CC BY-SA/3.0/Public domain)

Antonio poses the questions of “Who am I?” in the opening scene of the play. Later, Bassanio shows his values for marrying Portia are money, beauty, and lastly, virtues. However, he is trying to transform himself and become who he wants to be. Portia, the heroine of the play, knows who she is, but she is not her own to control since her father’s will keeps her from choosing her husband.

All these characters try to answer the question of identity, along with Shylock, the character whose richness and complexity exceed the play. Bassanio and Portia overcome their challenge of identity through their relationship.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Portia’s Challenge of Identity

Unlike Antonio, who tries to find out who he is, and Bassanio, who tries to become who he wants, Portia needs to gain control of her life. Her dead father’s will forbids her to choose her own husband. Portia must marry the person who solves the riddle of caskets.

Painting of Portia (Kate Dolan).
Portia is a wealthy, wise, and beautiful woman whose will is limited by her dead father’s will and creates the question of identity for her. (Image: John Everett Millais/Public domain)

Her father has created a lottery, where the contestants should guess which of the three caskets (the gold, the silver, or the lead) contains her picture. The winner marries her, and the losers should never again talk about marriage to her.

Choice is a fundamental element of identity, but Portia cannot have it, despite being a beautiful, rich, and wise woman. She points this out in “is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father.”

The Caskets

The scene of the lottery is a fundamentally crucial part of the play, right in the middle of the third act. Bassanio arrives in Belmont with all the money that Antonio has lent him. Bassanio and Portia have met once before, and they love each other, but the caskets might prevent their marriage.

Bassanio and Portia shall overcome their challenges of identity through the venture of love and knowing each other. Shakespeare’s definition of love is how self-knowledge depends on knowledge of another, and love is precisely the ultimate venture, the great risk.

Each of the three caskets has a riddle on it. The gold is “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” When the prince of Morocco opens it and finds a skull and scroll, with the lines explaining how men sell their lives to get gold, we see that the gold one does not contain her picture.

The silver casket reads: “Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves.” The Prince of Aragon chooses this one arrogantly but finds “a blinking idiot” inside. Choosing silver cannot bring happiness, only its phantom.

Learn more about the arc of character in The Merchant of Venice.

Bassanio’s Choice

The lead casket has “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath,” written on it. Shakespeare is hinting to love’s venture here again. Bassanio of the first scene would immediately go for gold since his first reason for marrying Portia was her wealth. Instead, he looks at all the caskets and chooses lead, saying:

“Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;
Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge ‘Tween man and man: but thou, thou meagre lead, Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught, Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence; And here choose I; joy be the consequence!”

Bassanio is depicted here dressed as the classic renaissance gentleman. (1914)
Bassanio overcomes his challenge of identity through his efforts for love, which teach him the real virtues. (Image: Internet Archive Book Image/Public domain )

He now understands that appearance and reality differ and that appearance can be deceptive. He finds Portia’s picture in the lead casket, and this is when Portia’s challenge of identity is overcome. She says, “You see me Lord Bassanio where I stand, / Such as I am.”

When she gives him the ring, it replaces the caskets as the venture of love that shall follow lovers all throughout the play. Thus, Bassanio helps Portia overcome her challenge by seeing who she is. Portia helps Bassanio reach the transformation he looked for from the beginning, through the venture of love and perceiving the value of virtues.

Learn more about appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night.

Common Questions about Bassanio and Portia

Q: What is the relationship between Bassanio and Portia?

Bassanio and Portia are in love, and Bassanio wins the contest whose prize is marrying Portia. Since the play has comic elements, they overcome the block of love.

Q: How is Bassanio’s challenge overcome?

Before Bassanio and Portia get married, he values wealth and beauty more than virtues. However, he chooses the lead casket and the real venture when he meets Portia for the second time, which shows his values have changed and he has transformed as he wanted.

Q: How does Bassanio marry Portia?

Portia’s father does not want her to choose her husband, so he sets up a contest where suitors can come and try to guess which of the three caskets (the gold, the silver, or the lead) contains her picture. The one who chooses right will marry her. Bassanio and Portia already love each other, and after Bassanio guesses right, they get married.

Q: Is Portia’s challenge of identity overcome?

Before Bassanio and Portia can marry, he has to win the lottery that her father has set up by choosing the casket containing her picture. When he chooses the right one and sees her as she is, her challenge of identity is overcome.

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