Lines to Love: So May the Outward Shows...


One of the things I appreciate the most about Shakespeare are the profound truths he expounds on in his works. Often we are forced to memorize these in school, such as Macbeth’s Out, out, brief candle… or that oft quoted Hamlet: To be or not to be… However, outside of the plays we are most familiar with lies an entire landscape of Shakespearean treasure. For me, one of his greatest is The Merchant of Venice. There are many reasons for this, but one of the prime ones is Bassanio’s soliloquy because it is chock full of truths upon which a person can build her life. 


Before I go any further, I think I should give some context. Bassanio has borrowed money from Antonio, the merchant of Venice and his honorary father, so he can travel to Belmont and try for the hand of the fair Portia. I say try for her hand because Portia happens to be one of the wealthiest heiresses in the world. Kings and princes covet her for her wealth. Her late father knew that he needed to institute some sort of insurance for his daughter’s future happiness and, therefore, devised a lottery that will test the character of the man who will marry her.

The test is this: three caskets or, in the modern vernacular, boxes are set before each suitor, gold, silver, and lead. Within one is a portrait of Portia. If the correct chest is selected, the suitor will find her painting therein and can claim her as his bride. However, if the wrong chest is chosen, then the suitor is turned away and must promise never to wed another. Before each chest is an inscription.

Gold: Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.

Silver: Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.

Lead: Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has.

A breakdown of Bassanio’s soliloquy provides all the answers you’ll need when it comes to understanding the method to Portia’s father’s seeming madness.

So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.

Even if iambic pentameter is not your forte, you’ll grasp the meaning of these two lines rather swiftly. In fact, they feel rather biblical. Recall, if you will, the prophet Samuel’s discourse with the Lord when he’s about to anoint the shepherd boy David as the future king of Israel. Look not on his appearance or the height of his stature, for I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). The world prizes the outward appearance, whether it’s the physicality of a person- her beauty, his brawn- or the image a person projects, but so much of that can be a lie. 

In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow 
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?

Words can be corrupted. With an outward display of flattery or pleading, one can play on the heartstrings of those around him and gloss over the grossness of his behavior. He can twist the goodness of something to make room for his corruption. To quote Shakespeare again (from the same play, no less): The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy witness Is like a villain with a smiling cheek, A goodly apple rotten at the heart. O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath! As a person who prizes sincerity, genuineness, and honesty, this sort of behavior and subsequent absolution smacks of the utmost injustice. It’s the hallmark of the worst blackguard. It should be marched into the proverbial marketplace and decried for all and sundry.

There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts:
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false 
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk;
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted!

This is perhaps my favorite portion of this soliloquy. I feel like social media has given rise to more and more of this sort of person. You know the sort, dear readers. The betrayers, the liars, the maligners, the disingenuous; you’ve known such cowardly men and women. Yet, it is those very men and women who try to present themselves as the most compassionate, honest, sincere, and loyal of individuals. It’s like they are campaigning for approval. They present strength of character and the image of fighting and standing for what is good and just, yet it’s all a façade. Hmmm. So may the outward shows be least themselves… 

Look on beauty,
And you shall see ‘tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind, 
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.

In today’s current climate, this portion rings true. Resoundingly. So many of the machinations and methods to present the image of beauty are, in reality, fallacious.  

Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.

I love the verbiage here: the seeming truth. The word seeming is defined as the act or fact of appearing to be; appearance. Another word in this context is veneer. You may know this term where furniture is concerned (when I hear it, I think of that hilarious scene in Frasier when the boys and their father play a word drinking game while watching Antiques Roadshow; the word they use is veneer). A veneer references a thin strip of good quality wood which is affixed to an inferior wood to make the piece look more expensive than it really is. Veneers, like seeming truths, are masquerades meant to deceive and exert influence over those who prize truth. 

And now we come to the breakdown of the caskets:

Therefore, thou gaudy gold,
Hard food for Midas, I will none of thee;

Gold is considered to be the purest of all metals, refined and costly. It is coveted by the greatest of men. But Bassanio remembers his mythology. King Midas was granted one wish by the god Dionysus for services rendered. He wished for all he touched to turn to gold. Alas, such a wish was a two edged sword for when he touched his food, it turned to gold. He nearly starved. While gold is a prize, indeed, it is not the sustenance man needs. 

Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge 
’Tween man and man:

Silver was used to fashion the currency of the day. Yet, a ducat, for all its worth in the marketplace, changed hands for the purchase of many an unworthy or deplorable thing. So, while it possesses value, silver is not the prize. The prize is Portia, and she cannot be bought and sold at any price. 

But thou, thou meagre lead,
Which rather threatenest than dost promise aught,
Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence;
And here choose I; 

To give and hazard all. Hazard, by definition, is a cautionary tale. It was a gambling game where the outcome was unpredictable. Etymologically speaking, it denotes misfortune, risk, and danger. But, there are two sides to the hazard coin (even though the game was actually played with dice…). Yes, misfortune and risk and danger abounded, but so did chance and possible and ultimate fortune. But here’s the thing about lead, particularly during Shakespeare’s time. Lead was common. It had little value. It was base. It lacked beauty. But, it was honestly itself. And, as Bassanio says, thy paleness moves me more than eloquence. He prizes truth over grandiloquence. 

Joy be the consequence!

Alea iacta est. Bassanio crosses his Rubicon. The outcome is uncertain. But, he knows intrinsically that he cannot chose what many men simply desire or what he thinks he deserves. If love is, as Pat Benatar says, a battlefield, then Bassanio must prove himself in battle. He can’t just adorn himself with valour’s excrement; he must be truly valiant. Only then can he be worthy of winning Portia’s hand. 

It could go very badly for Bassanio here. After all, he’s given up on the chance of getting what many men desire and exactly what he deserves. What sort of a man would overlook gold and silver for lead? Well, the world would call him a fool. But is he? 

The answer lies in the box. (It’s Schrodinger’s cat all over again.) 

I warn you, this is a spoiler here. 

Within the lead chest is fair Portia’s counterfeit! And beside the portrait is a message from her father which teaches us all a profound truth: 

You that choose not by view, chance as fair and choose as true!

So, as you head into this week, let this be a reminder, not to judge the book by its cover. I have made that error and can speak from experience as to what a let down that can be. Instead, scratch the surface and see what lies beneath. 

And, as the Grail Knight told Indiana Jones when he has to find the cup of Christ amongst all ornate and opulent chalices, Choose wisely

What’s your favorite Shakespeare quote?