Plot Summary / The Story-line
In Belmont Portia requests Bassanio to wait a day or two before selecting the casket. If his selection goes wrong then she will lose his company. She also admits that if it were in her hand, she would completely offer herself to Bassanio. She wishes she could guide Bassanio in choosing the right casket, but she is bound by her father’s will and she won’t break the rule.
Bassanio is oppressed by the uncertainty of waiting. So, he wants to select the casket without any wait. Portia instructs to play the music because she wants that Bassanio will make a “swanlike end” if his selection is incorrect. The song starts –
“tell me where is fancy bred
Or in the heart or in the head …”
Bassano is standing in front of the caskets. First, he rejects the gold casket, as he thinks only fools are impressed by outward appearance of things. He recalls the story of Midas – “hard food for Midas, I will none of thee.” Then he rejects the silver casket and recalls “pale and common drudge tween man and man”. Finally, he selects the ‘meagre’ lead casket.
Bassanio opens the casket and gets a portrait of Portia. He admires it. He also gets a scroll which praises his wisdom in his selection. Bassanio now turns to Portia. Portia offers herself to her new lord Bassanio. She gives Bassanio a ring as a symbol of their union and forbids to part from it. Bassanio promises her that he will wear the ring as long as he lives.
Nerissa and Gratiano congratulate Portia and Bassanio and confess that they are in love. Bassanio declares that they will have a double-wedding ceremony.
While they are enjoying their happiness, Lorenzo, Jessica and Antonio’s friend Salerio reach there. Salerio has come to deliver Antonio’s letter to Bassanio. Lorenzo informs that he and Jessica met Salerio on the way and he instigated them to come to Belmont with him. Bassanio and Portia welcome them.
Bassanio opens Antonio’s letter. He turns pale reading the letter. Portia notices this. She requests Bassanio to share the cause of his concern. Bassanio confesses that he is deeply owed to a friend who is in turn in a loan to a devil. Bassanio asks Salario if a single ship of Antonio has come safely. Salerio says no ship has returned.
They talk about Shylock’s evil intentions and the impending danger for Antonio. Jessica too attests her Father’s determination to take revenge against Antonio. He must take Antonio’s flesh. Portia agrees to pay any amount to save the life of Bassanio’s friend. But she wants themselves to get married first and then Bassanio will go to help Antonio.
She also says that in absence of Bassanio she and Nerissa “will live as maid and widow”. Portia asks Bassanio to read the letter aloud. In the letter Antonio says that he wants to see Bassanio before his death. He also says that his plans “have all miscarried”, his “creditors grow cruel”, his “estate is very low” and his “bond to the Jew is forfeit”. He also mentions that all the debt Bassanio owed to him has been cleared.
Portia understands the situation. She offers 6000 ducats (double of the loan) to Bassanio to save Antonio’s life. She urges Bassanio to start his journey at once towards Venice to save his friend’s life.
Commentary on Act III, Scene 2
This scene reaches the climax of the casket scene. Portia’s love for Bassanio is reflected here. She does not openly express her love at first though. Here the background music focuses on the word “fancy” indicating the fanciful affection of the Elizabethan people. At the same time, it instructs Bassanio not to select the casket for its outward beauty.
This scene points out an important theme of the play – the contrast between appearance and reality. Here a question must be asked why Bassanio is able to select the right casket and the answer is that his aim is only to gain love not pride or worldly object. Moreover, the inscription on the lead casket “who chooseth me must give or hazard all he hath” proves true to him. We know that he had no money to come to Belmont and has come there taking a loan putting his friend’s life at risk.
It is also a romantic scene where two couples of lovers are planning how they celebrate their wedding ceremony. But Antonio’s letter brings a tragic flow. Here the audience may notice that Portia ignores Jessica. Though she tries to prove her loyalty to the Christians, she is a Jew and the daughter of their enemy. Lorenzo loves her. But the other characters do not believe her completely.