Portia’s musicians announced the arrival of the two parties with a fanfare as she entered, side by side with the Prince of Morocco, their trains following behind.
Portia sat on her great chair and addressed one of the servants.
‘Go, draw the curtains aside and reveal the three caskets to this noble prince,’ she said.
When the curtains were drawn the Prince nodded and went and stood before the first of the three caskets.
‘The first, of gold, bears this inscription,’ he said. He leant forward to read it.
‘ “Who chooses me shall gain what many men desire.” ’ He frowned, then moved to the silver casket. ‘The second, of silver, promises this: “Who chooses me shall get as much as he deserves.” ’ He appeared to ponder that. He shook his head thoughtfully. ‘The third, made of dull lead, has a warning just as blunt: “Who chooses me must give and risk all he has.” ’ He turned and looked at Portia. ‘How will I know whether I’ve chosen the right one?’
‘One of them contains my picture,’ she said. ‘If you choose that one then I’m yours as well.’
The Prince’s eyes gleamed in anticipation. He threw himself on to the floor and crouched in prayer. ‘May some god guide my judgment!’ he begged. He got up and rubbed his hands. ‘Let me see. I’ll read the inscriptions again. What does the lead casket say? “Who chooses me must give and risk all he has.” Must give? What for? For lead? Risk everything for lead? Something wrong with this casket. Men who risk everything do so hoping for a good return. A high, golden, mind doesn’t stoop to things of such shabby appearance, so I won’t give or risk anything for lead!’
He turned away from the lead casket with a dismissive sneer. ‘What says the silver casket with it’s pure colour? “Who chooses me shall get as much as he deserves.” As much as he deserves? Pause there, Morocco, and weigh your value even-handedly. If you were to be valued according to your own estimation you certainly deserve enough! But ‘enough’ may not extend to the lady. And yet, to be afraid of my own worthiness would be to underestimate myself. As much as I deserve?’ He paced thoughtfully for a few moments then turned to the assembled observers with a huge grin. ‘That’s the lady, of course! I deserve her in terms of birth, and wealth, manners and quality of breeding. But above all else I deserve her in love. What if I went no further but chose here? Let’s have another look at the inscription made in gold. “Who chooses me shall gain what many men desire.” Why that’s the lady! The whole world desires her. They come from the four corners of the earth, to kiss this holy thing, this living saint. The Hyrcanian deserts and the vast wilds of Arabia have become highways for princes coming to see the beautiful Portia. The watery kingdom of the sea, who’s ambitious head spits in the face of heaven, is no barrier to these foreign suitors: they come as though merely crossing a brook, to see the beautiful Portia. One of these three contains her heavenly picture. Is it likely that lead would contain her? It’s damnable to think such a base thought, and unthinkable to imagine her as wrapped in a leaden shroud. Or shall I imagine her buried in silver, which is ten times less valuable than true gold? Oh, what a sinful thought! No gem as rich as she was ever set in anything less than gold. In England they have a coin that has the image of an angel stamped on the gold. It’s only engraved, but in here a real angel lies on a golden bed.’
He held his hand out to the attendant who held a cushion with the golden key on it. ‘Give me the key. I choose this one, and good luck to me.’
‘Take it, Prince,’ said Portia. ‘And if my picture is in there, then I am yours.’
The Prince took the key, unlocked the casket and lifted the lid. He reached in eagerly then let out an anguished cry. ‘Oh hell!’ He lifted the contents of the casket. ‘A rotting skull, and in its empty eye socket there’s a rolled-up manuscript. I’ll read it.’ He unrolled the scroll and read it out loud:
‘All that glisters is not gold,
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life has sold,
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms infold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled –
Far you well, your suit is cold.’
The Prince’s face showed his feelings. ‘Cold indeed,’ he said quietly. ‘And time wasted. So goodbye warmth and welcome cold. Goodbye Portia. My heart is too heavy for a long leavetaking.’ He bowed formally. ‘And this is how losers leave,’ he said. He turned and swept out, his attendants following.
Portia waited till he was out of hearing then she laughed delightedly. ‘Good riddance!’ she exclaimed. ‘Draw the curtains. May everyone with his kind of vanity choose like him!’