Portia’s Puzzle

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Portia from Merchant of VenicePortia is the heroine of Shakespeare's play, The Merchant of Venice. At the end of the play she appears as an extremely clever lawyer. This tale is adapted from near the beginning of the story - where her husband is chosen by an unusual test. As you will hear, it is rather like a fairy tale.

Read and written by Elizabeth for Storynory. Proofread by Claire Deakin.
Duration 23 minutes.

A long time ago, in Italy, there lived a beautiful young woman named Portia. Everyone who knew her thought that she was the luckiest girl alive. She wore the finest dresses, and ate the most delicious food. Every evening, the funniest jesters in Italy performed for her and the best musicians played. She had the most glorious bedroom any princess could wish for, draped in cloths of satin and velvet, and on a dressing table sat an oakwood box of necklaces and bracelets dripping with diamonds and pearls. But in spite of this wonderful life, there was one thing that troubled Portia, and that was, now she had reached the age of eighteen she was expected to find a husband.

Her parents had died some years before. Her father, a very intelligent man who loved his daughter dearly, had not left her future happiness to chance. He knew that he would not be around to help her choose a husband, and so, he came up with a test to see that the right man got the job.

This was the test…

Behind a red curtain at the end of the grand hall was a platform, and on it were placed three caskets; one of gold, one of silver and one of lead. Inside one of the caskets was a portrait of Portia. Whoever wanted to be Portia’s husband had to choose the correct casket, where he would find her picture.

There was a risk that came with this challenge: Every man who tried his luck had to promise that if he picked the wrong casket, not only would he never see Portia again, but he would never marry anyone! This was to make sure that anyone who tried had very serious intentions.

Word of Portia’s beauty had spread to every corner of the world, and men; young and old, tall and short, fat, thin, pale, tanned, handsome, ugly, charming, rude, and pretty much men of every variety flocked to her town, fair Belmont, to meet her.

It was after a day of meeting and greeting that she finally managed to have some time alone with her maid, Nerissa.

“Did you really not take a shining to any of the young lads?” Nerissa asked.

“It’s not up to me, is it?” Replied Portia, “This has got to be the most random way of choosing a husband ever.”

“Portia! Do you really have such little faith in your father?” Responded Nerissa, and then she said more softly, and slyly, "Supposing that young Bassanio turned up…. I know you thought he was a nice lad."

“Him? Oh yes, well he was, I admit, rather nice… For a man… But he’s not been here for at least two years.”

“Well you never know.” Said the serving girl. “Anyway what did you think of today’s batch?”

“You’ll have to remind me of them – I saw so many!”

Nerissa drew out a scroll from her apron pocket. Unrolling it, she said, “First there was the Neapolitan, what did you make of him?”

“Oh him!” Sighed Portia. “All he did was talk about his horse and how wonderful it was.” To amuse her companion, she did an impression of him. “It runs so fast, it jumps so high, oh and his teeth!” And, “Oh his coat!” And, “I must tell you about his neck…!”

“No, you’re right!” Nerissa cut in. Portia laughed.

“I think he was starting to look a bit like a horse!” Portia added.

“Well, then there was the Roman.” Said Nerissa.

“Goodness, he was a misery guts! He didn’t laugh at a single joke. Before you say anything, my jokes aren’t that bad! Oh yes he said to me, "What’s the point of beauty in the world when everything decays?" If he’s like that as a young man, imagine what he’ll be like when he’s older. I’d rather marry a skull – it’d have a better sense of humour!”

“Next was Monsieur Le Bon, the French lord.” Nerissa said, looking down the list of suitors.

“Monsieur Le Bon! I’d never met anyone like him before, or like “them” I should say!”

“Sorry?” Enquired Nerissa.

“He was certainly more than one person - he kept becoming different personalities! One minute he was dancing on his own (to no music), the next he was fencing his own shadow: "Don’t you think for one moment you will get away you pesky little shadow... But it is me, Monsieur Le Bon... Non! I am Monsieur Le Bon... This cannot be! Aha! I have surprised you! Oh non! Mais oui! Oh non!" I think he is all the company he will ever need. If I did marry him, I’d be marrying twenty husbands!”

“So that’s Italy and France crossed off the list! What did you make of that nice young man from England?” Asked Nerissa.

“Falconbridge? He was lovely to look at, but it was hopeless. He spoke no Latin, French or Italian and you know how ropey my English is. There’s little conversation to be had with a mime artist! As for his outfit, he was dressed in such a strange way. Certainly a man of international style – he was wearing an Italian jacket, French trousers, and a German hat. It was rather peculiar!”

“Speaking of Germans, how did you like the Duke of Saxony?”

“I didn’t like him very much in the morning when he was sober, but it only got worse in the afternoon when he was drunk!”

“Oh well you needn’t worry, love. When they heard about the test, they all decided they weren’t up to it and will be leaving Belmont tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow is a new day, and a new hoard of visitors will arrive!” Portia sighed.

The next day, as the sun first appeared on the horizon, and its beams danced across the choppy waves, a fleet of ships could be seen approaching the port of Belmont. These belonged to the Prince of Morocco. He, like many other princes before him, had come to seek Portia’s hand in marriage.

Portia was fast asleep when the ships docked at dawn. She never received visitors before midday and this gave the new guest time to prepare for their meeting. He was due to meet Portia on the stroke of noon in the grand hall where he would face the challenge.

When 12 o’clock arrived, Portia, with Nerissa at her side, was sitting in the grand hall, at the far end where the red curtains were hung. Noble ladies and gentlemen, sworn to secrecy, gathered at the other end of the hall to watch the challenge (for royal romance has always been a great spectator sport).

As soon as the Prince of Morocco walked into the room, his eyes were drawn to Portia and he was struck by her beauty.

Portia watched as he entered with his train of servants. She had never seen a man dressed so exotically. He wore brilliantly dyed clothes in orange and sapphire blue, and an elaborate turban clasped with a ruby. She met him with a smile, and nodded to the the red curtains. He walked towards them with his attendants. On reaching the curtains, one of Portia’s servants drew them open to reveal the three caskets.

“My picture is in one of them,” said Portia, “and if you chose correctly, you will win me as your bride.”

“Thank you, I must choose carefully then,” said the prince.

Looking at the three caskets, one of gold, one of silver and one of lead, he noticed the clues that hung above each one.

Stopping first at the box made of lead, he read the clue,

“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath!”

He pondered over this, “‘Must give’, What would I be giving for? What would I get in return for everything I already have? Lead? I should give up everything I am worth for lead? No. When people risk everything, they do it hoping the outcome will be worth it. I shall not give up all my wealth and honour for something paltry!”

“What about the silver?” He said, stepping in front of the second casket. He read aloud the clue that hung above it.

“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”

“As much as he deserves.” I must think about this carefully. I do deserve a lot, and yet is a lot enough to deserve the lady? I do in birth deserve her and in wealth and in upbringing, but more than any of these I deserve her in love. For no one could be more loving than I am. Why should I carry on? I could stop at this silver chest.”

He looked around for the servant that guarded the three keys, and checking himself, he spoke, “I’ll have one last look at the gold casket, just to be sure.”

He read its clue, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”

“That has to be Portia, every man alive wants to marry her! Now I think about it, how could she possibly be placed inside lead? What a terrible thought. Why would she be placed in the silver casket? It was foolish of me to think so. Silver is worth a tenth of the value of gold. The finest jewels are set in gold and nothing less!”

He turned to Portia. “I’ve made my decision and I will stand by it. The key to the gold casket if you please.”

Portia nodded to the servant holding the three keys. “If you find my portrait inside it, I shall be yours!” She said.

Without hesitation, the prince unlocked the golden box and lifted its lid.

“Oh No!” He cried. He lifted out the contents of the chest. There was no sight of Portia’s picture, but instead he had found a skull. In its eye socket was lodged a piece of parchment. He unrolled it and read out loud, “All that glitters is not gold.”

“Oh what a fool I’ve been,” he said. “Yes of course, many men desire what is beautiful on the surface and are tricked just as I have been. Farewell Portia, it is with great sadness I leave you and you have my word I shall never tell anyone which casket I chose.”

The Moroccan Prince and his attendants left the grand hall. The court sat down for lunch, during which, Portia was told that another suitor had arrived. This time it was a nobleman from Spain, the Prince of Aragon.

At two o’clock, Portia and Nerissa took up their places in the grand hall to wait for the visitor’s arrival. As the clock chimed upon the hour, the large panelled doors were opened to receive the young prince. He was very handsome, with a jacket of crimson velvet and jet black hair. With great confidence he strutted down the hall towards Portia.

“There are the caskets, noble prince,” said Portia. “Do you agree to the terms of the challenge?” She asked.

“I do indeed. I swear that I will never tell anyone which casket I chose, and that if pick the wrong one, I shall leave right away, never to return, and never, in all my life, marry.”

“He seems to take these vows as if they were nothing to him,” whispered Nerissa. “He must be pretty confident!”

The Prince began to examine the caskets. Standing in front of the lead, he read its clue, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

“Give everything I have!” He exclaimed. “Never! What’s mine is mine and I’d never risk it for anything!”

“What’s written on the golden chest? "Who chooseth me shall get what many men desire." What many men desire? I don’t belong to the common masses, my tastes are by far superior!”

“On to the silver... “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Well said - For he that wins the lady must deserve her. Her father would not give her away to anyone unworthy. I know I am deserving! The key to the silver chest, please!”

Portia nodded to her servant who handed the silver key to the Spaniard. Seizing it from his hand, the Spanish prince hastily unlocked the casket, flashing a smile over his shoulder to the assembled crowd, before lifting the lid.

The crowd saw his smile leave is face pretty swiftly as he pulled out a picture of a clown.

“What is this? Who chooseth me shall have as much as he deserve. Is this all I deserve? A fool in place of a beautiful bride?” Then, all of a sudden he realised, “By valuing myself so highly I have made a fool of myself in front of all these people and so I have become the fool in the picture! Farewell lady, I shall never trouble you again.”

With that he left. As he was on the way out, a servant passed him in the doorway on his way to the princess. “My lady, a young Venetian man has arrived at the gate. He is very witty and brings you all manner of gifts. He asks if he might take the challenge.”

“Claudio,” replied Portia, “Are you related to him? I don’t think I’ve ever heard you speak so highly of anyone!”

“I promise you I’m not, my lady.”

“Admit him!”

“Very good, my lady.”

Shortly after this exchange Claudio re-entered, followed by a young man. Portia recognised him at once. It was Bassanio – the one she had always liked, but had not seen for two years. He was a scholar and a soldier, whose wit was as sharp as his sword. After her father’s death, Bassanio had been away at war. He approached the chairs on which Portia and Nerissa sat, before bowing deeply. Then he took Portia’s hand and kissed it.

Portia looked downcast. “Oh please don’t take the test,” she said. “It would be too cruel for me to get my hopes up, and then for you to fail it, and never be able to marry another.”

He smiled at her and she returned his smile. “Couldn’t you delay the challenge a day or two?” She asked.

If Bassanio chose the wrong casket like the other suitors before him, this would be the last time she would ever see him.

He replied resolutely, “I can’t put it off any longer. It is torture to stand in front of the three caskets, knowing that in one of them lies the future I have always dreamed of.”

Portia felt herself about to blush, but determined not to, quickly replied, “Torture? Men speak to please when they are being tortured!”

He smiled. “I promise you nothing but the truth.”

All this had been said privately, but now Portia said out loud so that the audience could hear, “Choose as you think best. In one of the caskets lies my portrait, which if you find, you’ll find me as your wife,” she said trying to seem calm whilst her heart raced inside her.

He picked up the gold casket that the Moroccan prince had chosen and Portia looked away. Nerissa nudged her as the young man put it down. Next he studied the silver casket – looking at the marks which showed what weight of silver it was. Portia felt certain he was about to choose the wrong one, but he put it back on the table and pondered over the lead casket.

“Lead, silver, and gold.” Bassanio said. “Well often the most worthless things are decorated to make them seem of value, so I won’t be tricked by gaudy gold or even silver. Material wealth is worthless in comparison with the truly precious treasures in this life - love and happiness.”

Portia and Nerissa looked on as Bassanio examined the caskets once again.

“Oh you poor thing.” Nerissa whispered, as she noticed Portia biting her lip in anticipation. “He’s a clever lad, that Bassanio, he’ll not go wrong.”

“And so, I have made my decision,” Bassanio announced. “The key to the lead casket please,” he requested.

Portia sighed with relief. She knew it to be the correct choice after the previous suitors had failed with gold and silver.

Bassanio opened the chest to find her portrait and a scroll. He read it aloud.

“You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true.
Since this fortune falls to you.
Be content and seek no new.
If you be well pleased with this
And hold your fortune for your bliss.
Turn you where your lady is,
And claim her with a loving kiss.”

Bassanio did exactly that.

Nerissa thrilled by the sight of the young couple wiped a tear of happiness from her eye. Portia and Bassanio were to be married…