Nerissa came running into the casket room. The servants sprang up and took their positions.
‘Quick, quick!’ she said. ‘Draw the curtains right now. The Prince of Arragon has taken the oath and he’s on his way to make his choice!’
No sooner had they drawn the curtains aside than Portia arrived with the Prince and his attendants.
‘Look, there are the caskets, noble Prince,’ said Portia, once she had seated herself in her large chair. ‘If you choose the one that contains my picture we’ll be married right away. But if you fail, you must say nothing, my lord, and leave immediately.’
The Prince of Arragon clasped his hands together, closed his eyes and leaned back slightly. ‘I’m bound by oath to observe three things,’ he began. ‘First, never to disclose to anyone which casket it was that I chose. Second, if I fail to choose the right casket, never in my life to woo a woman with marriage in mind. Lastly, if I’m unfortunate in my choice, to leave you immediately and be gone.’
‘Everyone who comes to gamble for my worthless self has to swear to these conditions,’ said Portia.
‘And I have accepted all this,’ said the Prince. ‘May fortune grant me my heart’s desire.’ He walked up and down in front of the caskets for a while then he paused at the lead casket. ‘Gold, silver and base lead. “Who chooses me must give and risk all he has.” Hm.’ He turned and looked at Portia. ‘You’d have to be more attractive before I’d give or risk. What does the golden chest say? Ah, let me see. “Who chooses me shall gain what many men desire.” What many men desire! By that ‘many’ may be meant the stupid mob who choose by appearance, judging by the eyes alone. They don’t penetrate to the heart of things but go about it like those birds that build their nests on outer walls, at the mercy of the weather, right in the way of danger. I will not choose what many men desire, because I don’t jump with the common man, nor do I rank myself among the ignorant masses. Well then, to you, you silver treasure-house! Tell me once more what inscription you bear. “Who chooses me shall get as much as he deserves.” And well said too, because who goes out to seek his fortune, looking for honour, without already having high merit? No-one should assume a status he doesn’t deserve. I wish that lands, titles, and public offices were never gained corruptly, and that honours were always earned by merit. How many men would keep their hats on instead of politely raising them? How many be ordered about rather than issue orders? How many labourers would come from the upper classes and how many noblemen would be created from the dregs and castoffs of society? Well. To my choice. “Who chooses me shall get as much as he deserves.” I will assume desert.’ He turned. ‘Give me the key for this and immediately unlock my fortunes here.’
He opened the casket confidently then stood back, shocked.
‘Too long a pause for what you find there,’ said Portia.
The Prince of Arragon lifted something out of the casket then staggered backwards.
‘What’s here?’ he roared, holding a small object up. ‘A gibbering idiot presenting me with a letter. I’ll read it.’ He took the letter and threw the figure back into the casket. ‘How unlike Portia you are!’ he exclaimed’ How very different my hopes and my deservings were! Who chooses me shall have as much as he deserves. Did I deserve no more than a fool’s head? Is that my reward?’ He appealed to Portia. ‘Do I deserve no better?’
‘To offend and to judge are two different things,’ said Portia.
Arragon opened the letter. ‘What’s in it?’ he said. He read it out aloud.
‘ “The fire seven times tried this:
Seven times tried that judgment is
That never did choose amiss,
Some there be that shadows kiss:
Such have but a shadow’s bliss:
There be fools alive, I wis,
Silvered o’er – and so was this.
Take what wife you will to bed,
I will ever be your head:
So be gone, you are sped.” ’
Arragon stood, his mouth open, staring at Portia. She shrugged then looked at Nerissa and smiled.
‘The longer I stay the more of a fool I’ll look,’ said Arragon. ‘I came to woo wearing one fool’s head, but now I’m going away with two. Goodbye, sweet woman. I’ll keep my promise to bear my fate with patience.’
He turned and left, sadly and slowly. Portia sighed. ‘Another moth singed by the burning candle. Oh these pompous fools! When they make their choice they’re too clever for their own good and make a mess of it.’
Nerissa laughed. ‘The old saying is right: whether you end up hanged or married is a matter of fate.’
Portia got up. ‘Come,’ she said. ‘Draw the curtain.’
A servant met them at the door. ‘Where is my lady?’ he said to Nerissa.
‘Here I am.’ Portia was in a good mood. ‘What can I do for my lord?’
‘Madam, a young Venetian has arrived at your gate to announce the approach of his master. He has brought substantial tokens – that is to say, apart from salutations and courtesies, gifts of great value. I’ve never seen such a promising ambassador of love. No sweeter April day ever anticipated the summer as well as this forerunner introduces his master.
‘Stop now, please,’ said Portia. ‘I’m half afraid you’re going to say he is family of yours, you spend so much time praising him. Come, come, Nerissa. I’m dying to see this messenger of Cupid who arrives in this splendid way.’
‘Let’s hope it’s Bassanio, if it’s the will of the god of love!’ said Nerissa.