A butler ushered the Prince of Morocco into the great hall in Belmont. He was accompanied by his colourfully dressed attendants. As for himself, he was splendid in gorgeous eastern robes and a spectacular green turban. He bowed graciously to Portia, who sat on a huge ornate chair, surrounded by her attendants. Nerissa sat beside her. At the other end of the hall the three great oak caskets waited. Portia invited the prince to sit on the chair opposite her, which he did, with several flourishes. She was aware of Nerissa’s efforts to maintain a blank expression. She knew that she should, on no account, glance at her. She motioned the prince to begin his suit.
‘Do not take a disliking to me because of my colour,’ he began. His voice was rich and deep, and he had a guttural accent. ‘It’s the dark uniform of those who live beneath the burning sun. Bring me the palest creature born in a northern climate, where the sun is too weak to melt icicles, and compare our love by cutting through our skins. That would prove whose blood is reddest, his or mine. I assure you, lady, this face of mine has struck fear into the bravest of men. I swear by my love that the most beautiful virgins of our country have loved it too. I would not change my colour, my gentle queen, except to win your love.’
‘As far as choice of a husband is concerned,’ replied Portia, ‘I’m not solely influenced by the things that normally appeal to a young woman’s eyes. In any case, the lottery of my destiny removes the right to choose for myself. But if my father hadn’t restricted me by his plan to give myself as his wife to whoever wins me by the method I explained to you, you, renowned prince, would have had as good a chance as any wooer.’
‘I thank you for that,’ replied the prince with a modest bow of his head. ‘So please lead me to the caskets to try my fortune. By this sword, that dispatched the Sophy and a Persian prince who had won three battles against Sultan Solyman, I would outstare the sternest eyes that ever looked, be braver than the most courageous man on earth, snatch the young sucking cubs from the mother bear, even scorn the predatory lion, to win you, lady. But alas! If Hercules and Lichas were to throw dice to determine which was the greater, the higher number may, by luck, be thrown by the weaker of the two. In that way, Alcides could be beaten by his page. So could I also, being a hostage to fortune, lose what a less worthy man may gain, and die of grief.’
‘You have to take that risk,’ said Portia. ‘You must decide either not to attempt to choose at all, or swear, before you choose, that if you choose wrong you will never again talk to another woman about marriage. So be warned.’
‘I agree! So come on, lead me to my fate.’
‘First, to the temple to make your vow,’ said Portia. ‘After dinner you’ll make your choice.’
‘Good luck to me then!’ exclaimed the prince. ‘This will make me either the happiest or the most wretched of men.’