The casket scene

Act 3 Scene 2 – Key Scene

In this scene Bassanio faces the challenge left in Portia’s father’s will. He must pick either the gold, silver or lead casket and if he chooses the one which contains Portia’s portrait then he will be entitled to marry her. Bassanio deliberates over which one to choose and succeeds in picking the correct casket (lead). Bassanio and Portia are both overjoyed that they can now marry.

Take a look at an extract from this scene. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    Therefore, then, 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 threaten’st than dost promise aught,
    Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence,
    And here choose I.
    Joy be the consequence!

    Midas was a mythical king who turned everything he touched into gold, whether he wanted to or not.

    A lowly servant.

    But you, lowly lead, which seems more intimidating than something which offers value, your plainness is more appealing than fancy words.

    (Aside)How all the other passions fleet to air,
    As doubtful thoughts and rash-embraced despair
    And shudd’ring fear and green-eyed jealousy!
    O love, be moderate, allay thy ecstasy,
    In measure rain thy joy, scant this excess.
    I feel too much thy blessing.
    Make it less, For fear I surfeit.

    Notice how Portia speaks to the audience in an aside, before talking to Bassanio. Why do you think she does this?

    All my other feelings disappear into the air, such as doubt, despair, fear and jealousy. Love, stay calm and be moderate so that I don’t get sick and overwhelmed by you!

    (He opens the lead casket)
    What find I here?
    Fair Portia’s counterfeit! What demigod
    Hath come so near creation? Move these eyes?
    Or whether, riding on the balls of mine,
    Seem they in motion? Here are severed lips,
    Parted with sugar breath, so sweet a bar
    Should sunder such sweet friends. But her eyes —
    How could he see to do them? Having made one,
    Methinks it should have power to steal both his
    And leave itself unfurnished. Yet look how far
    The substance of my praise doth wrong this shadow
    In underprizing it, so far this shadow Doth limp behind the substance.Here’s the scroll,
    The continent and summary of my fortune.

    A copy or a picture.

    Someone who is half human, half divine.

    What does Bassanio think of the portrait? What are his thoughts about the painter who painted it?

    Does Bassanio know for certain whether he can marry Portia or not yet?

    Here is a scroll which contains and concludes what my future holds.

  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out or that tell you how Portia and Bassanio feel in this moment? What clues are there that Portia wants Bassanio to succeed or that Bassanio is impatient to make his choice? How do they both sound?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How do the characters come across in this version? How does the staging draw out the characters in these moments? How do you think Portia and Bassanio feel about each other in this interpretation?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of The Merchant of Venice at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the scene feel right to you?