Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Dating Game

In mythic terms, three is the most powerful of all numbers. Fairytales are full of threes--Cinderella was the third sister, there were three bears, three little pigs, three blind mice. Events happen in threes--Rumplestiltskin gives the queen three days to guess his name, Christ rises on the third day, three strikes and you're out. Usually, threes are auspicious. Third time's a charm.

Twos, on the other hand, can be dangerous. Twos are two-faced, duplicitous. In some cultures, twins are thought to be bad luck. If you see your doppelganger, you're going to die. A dyad is two parents without a child, a good twin and an evil one, two opposing forces that will fight forever, without the possibility of transcendence or change.

That's why three is also a religious number. The third possibility is the one you can't see--the Holy Spirit, the Higher Plane, the Synthesis. Without a third, you have only strife, barrenness, and mortality. The Christian cross symbolizes this transcendent movement--a horizontal line for the earthly plane, a vertical one extending heavenward. There were three crosses on that hill--the good thief, the bad thief, and the son of God who will reconcile the two through the gift of grace.  Three is the number of possibility, of hope, of alternatives. Philosophers love threes. Hegel came up with thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Freud had the ego, the superego, and the id. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Of the people, by the people, and for the people. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Etcetera.

Will liked threes as well--three witches, Lear's three daughters, three caskets. Which brings me to today's topic: Portia's marriage game. The idea of a marriage test goes back a long way. If you've read Greek mythology you might remember the story  of Atalanta, the fleet-footed maiden who vowed she would only marry the man who could beat her in a footrace. The losers, she got to kill. Now Atalanta's dad had wanted a boy, so he took his infant daughter and left her in the woods, whereupon she was nursed by bears and raised to be a savage huntress type. She had no interest in marriage, and no affection for men. The footrace is a pretty typical example of the "taming of the virgin" motif. A powerful woman guards her virginity, and is a threat to all men. She must be defeated in war, deflowered, and made into a submissive baby-receptacle. The man who defeats Atalanta (I can't remember his name) asked Aphrodite to help him--the goddess of love has always been anti-woman, in my opinion--so she gave him three golden apples to help slow Atalanta down in her race. He throws them out one at a time, she can't resist picking them up, and is eventually beaten.

The other example that comes to mind is that of Siegfried and Brunhild, in the medieval German epic The Nibelungenlied. Brunhild is an Icelandic warrior Queen, and Gunther, a Burgundian prince, wants to marry her. She's super-strong, however, so she sets up a test. Her suitors must defeat her in three Olympic-style events--I think there's javelin-throwing, shot-putting, and some sort of jumping contest. If they guessed it--they're history. Gunther, being kind of an effete princeling type, hasn't a prayer. But his bud Siegfried is an Arnold-type he-man, who happens to be smitten by Gunther's sister, Kriemhild. Because he's a mythic hero, he's also got lots of cool magical gadgets, like invisibility hats and stuff. So he basically helps Gunther cheat at the game, and wins Brunhild's hand for his future brother-in-law.

The problem returns on the wedding night. Brunhild suspects that this wimp in her bedchamber couldn't possibly be the guy who defeated her in battle, so she ties him up and hangs him on the wall.

I love that part.

Well, Siegfried can't let his good buddy down, so he goes in and puts her in her place. In just the way you imagine. After she's been deflowered (read: raped), she's miraculously weak and submissive. Ta-da! Ziggy then turns her over to her little pissant of a husband. A sad, but somehow typically German story.

The Test

Do you remember that old TV show, The Dating Game? That was a game of threes, as well. It was on when I was about twelve, and that's about the intellectual level it aspired to. A man or woman--I remember there being more female choosers than male--would pick from three potential "dates" who were hidden from view. She would ask them really stupid but somewhat titillating questions (e.g., "if you were a dessert, what would you be?) and eventually pick one of them on the basis of their answers. It was, like Portia's casket test, a game of interpretation--the contestant had to figure out which of the three would be the best match for her without seeing them. Like the casket game, it also attempted to circumvent superficial judgments. Although I remember how obviously disappointed the contestant seemed to be when she realized she had passed up the best-looking one for a less attractive "bachelor."
It's hard to reduce attraction to an algorithm or set of desired qualities. That's why computer dating so often fails--because there's something intangible at work, isn't there? At the same time, we all have "tests," whether we acknowledge them or not. One of mine was driving. If I noticed a guy's driving, he was out. Driving should be background. A person should drive skillfully enough that his driving didn't freak me out, or make me wish I were the one behind the wheel. He also had to handle a manual transmission deftly, since that was what I drove. Any guy who couldn't handle a stick wasn't manly, in my book.

Yes, Dr. Freud, I can figure that one out.  

So, Portia. She's rich, everyone wants her, and her dead father has set up this marriage test, to make sure--what? That she marries a poor guy who wants her money? Because that's what happens. Mostly it seems like the test is just a way for her father to exert control over her from beyond the grave--the outcome proves neither strength (as in the German tale), cleverness (as in the Greek one) or integrity. It seems arbitrary. The test has to be her dad's idea, in order to distance good-girl Portia from the mythic archetype of the man-hating, powerful virgin. And it has to be dangerous, too--although it can't involve literal death, since this is a comedy.  In this version, the losers have to agree never to marry. Among the nobility this was a kind of symbolic death, because it meant that they would have no legacy, no one to legally bequeath their name and their fortunes to.

It seems to me that this wasn't really a legally-binding condition, but never mind. It's Belmont, where fairytale conventions are fully operational.  In keeping with folklore, three men must make their choices, interpreting each casket in turn. The last one will be successful--this descending order accentuates the role of destiny in the outcome. As we'll see, however, Portia isn't above gaming the system a little when she finds a man she really wants.

The Prince of Morocco, whom we met previously, is the first to be dismissed. He has to choose the gold casket because it's the most superficially valuable. Like most tests of this kind, the obvious choice is always the wrong one.

One wonders why the suitors don't realize they're in a folkloric universe and just go for the ugly lead one right off.

But the fairytale is one of the few genres that exhibits no literary irony whatsoever. People in those stories never seem aware that they're stuck in a cycle of repetition--that the golden-haired girl always gets the prince, that the third comer always wins, that the thing that's least valuable on the outside is always the one with the magical, transformative power. All one has to do is inject a little generic self-consciousness into these stories and you have an instant spoof, a la Monty Python.

Bachelor Number One

As the first suitor, Morocco gets to introduce all the quasi-magical items:

This first of gold, who this inscription bears:
'Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.'
The second silver, which this promise carries:
'Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.'
This third dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'

Morocco reasons it out, dismissing the lead casket first--no one, he reasons, would hazard everything for lead. Of course he mistakes the meaning of the riddle--he's not asked to gamble to get the casket, after all. It's the lady he's after. It's just a symbol that he reads too literally.  He contemplates the silver one, deciding that he does in fact deserve Portia because of his high birth, good breeding and fortune. Before deciding he turns to the gold one, this time interpreting the riddle to mean Portia herself, the lady whom "many men desire":

...All the world desires her.
From the four corners of the earth they come
To kiss this shrine, this immortal breathing saint.
The Hyrcanian deserts and the vasty wilds
Of wide Arabia are as thoroughfares now
For Princes to come view fair Portia.
The watery kingdom, whose ambitious head
Spits in the face of heaven, is no bar
To stop the foreign spirits, but they come
As o'er a brook to see fair Portia.

This passage reminds me of a line in Antony and Cleopatra--Antony regrets the hold Cleo has on him and his honor, and wishes he "had never seen her." His loyal lieutenant, Enobarbus, replies that, had he never met her, he would have missed out on some memorable erotic tourism:

"O, sir, you had then left unseen a wonderful piece of work, which not to have been blessed withal would have discredited your travel."

Morocco's vivid description of the men flocking over deserts and waterways to court Portia similarly objectifies her, turning her into a landmark, a natural wonder, a rare commodity. It's almost funny, really, the picture of all these princes clogging the oceans and paving over the deserts to get to her.

In the end, he forgets the riddles and remains fixed on the caskets themselves. He refuses to disparage either Portia or himself by choosing anything less than gold.  Inside, he finds "a carrion death."--a skull--a reminder that "all that glisters is not gold," and a rebuke:

Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.

I'm reminded of Romeo here, throwing money at the apothecary:

There is thy gold--worse poison to men's souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds...

Gold is pretty much always a seductive and dangerous thing in Will's plays, and often a harbinger of doom. Ironically, Morocco is reprimanded for choosing according to the "outside," but Portia bids him farewell with this racist line:

Let all of his complexion choose me so.

I've already written about this creepy moment, so I won't belabor the point. Suffice it to say it's an unequivocal reminder of the hypocrisy of the game, and of the Christians themselves.  The winner must prove himself able to see beyond the surface, but Portia, obviously, doesn't hold herself to the same standards.

Bachelor Number Two

Portia's next suitor is the Prince of Aragon, and of course he chooses the silver casket. He, too, dismisses the lead one on the basis of its appearance:

'Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.'
You shall look fairer ere I give or hazard.

In other words, he's not willing to gamble on something that looks so cheap and ugly. He rejects the gold for reasons of snobbery--he doesn't want to be associated with

...the fool multitude, that choose by show,
Not learning more than the fond eye doth teach."

This after he dismissed the lead casket specifically because it's not pleasing to the eye. Because he doesn't want to be ranked "with the barbarous multitudes," he chooses the silver, reasoning that he--unlike many--deserves the lady. He offers a little social commentary, wishing that more high-ranking people actually deserved their privileges, but he's not advocating a democratic meritocracy. He means that only those who have old titles and old wealth should be allowed to rise in society.  He seems to be lamenting that although he comes from noble stock, he has no money. He deserves Portia and her fortune because of his heritage, not his actions.

What he finds is a "fool's head," "the portrait of a blinking idiot."  The casket also contains a somewhat cryptic explanation of its contents--in this case, a little poem that likens the failed suitor to a narcissistic fool who pretends to wisdom. This pretty much describes Aragon, who's not very smart.

As Aragon leaves, a messenger announces that another suitor has come:

Madam, there is alighted at your gate
A young Venetian, one that comes before
To signify the approaching of his lord
From whom he bringeth sensible regreets
To wit, besides commends and courteous breath,
Gifts of rich value.

Bassanio has sent some fancy packages ahead of his arrival--all bought with Antonio's borrowed money. The messenger is impressed:

...Yet have I not seen
So likely an ambassador of love.

His fine gifts make him a good candidate, in other words. Of course it's all a pose--he's got nothing but his good name.  But Nerissa speaks for both women when she hopes that the newcomer is the (doubtless) hot-looking and suave Bassanio.

Bachelor Number Three

I'm skipping a couple of scenes ahead so that I can treat all the suitors in one post. In the second scene of Act 3, Portia entreats Bassanio to "tarry a little" before he "hazards."  Using that word is a pretty bald hint, isn't it? It's right there in the lead casket's inscription. She'll give him a few more hints before it's over, too. It's cheating, but as we've seen, the Christian characters make their own rules in this play.

Anyway, she's enjoying his company, and fears he will make the wrong choice. She more or less reveals her feelings; although she insists "it is not love" that makes her feel so funny, the rest of her speech suggests otherwise. She wants him to stick around "a month or two," then considers breaking her oath to her father and telling him the right answer.  He insists on taking his chances:

Let me choose,
For as I am, I live upon the rack.

"This not knowing is torture." In fact, I imagine he doesn't have enough money to keep impressing her with his fake wealth for two more months. So he goes for it.  Portia points to the caskets, and tells him that she is "locked in one of them."  The metaphoric connection between locked boxes and virginal bodies would have been pretty obvious to Will's audience. The right man has the "key" to the untried receptacle. By unlocking it, he will possess her (and her money) completely.

Portia asks for music while he chooses. I'm hearing the "Jeopardy" theme here, but I think it's supposed to be something more melodic. One of her servants sings

Tell me where is fancy bred
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourish-ed?

As you see, all the lines rhyme with...lead. 

Bassanio seems to take the hint--his whole "choosing speech" is about how one needs to look behind veil of "ornament" and "outward parts" to see the truth within:

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.

He associates "ornament" with exotic locales and "Indian" beauties--that's not a compliment. "Indian" here means swarthy or dark-skinned. The veil hides the truth of racial difference--the ugliness of a tawny face.  He makes his choice, rejecting "gaudy gold" and the "common drudge/'Tween man and man" that is silver currency, choosing "meagre lead/Which rather threaten'st than doth promise aught."

So let's think about this. Portia says that she's locked in one of the boxes--but really all of them are aspects of her, and aspects of this play. In gold we see fortune and wealth in its idealized state--she was earlier likened to the Golden Fleece of mythology, and Belmont seems, on the surface, to be a "golden" place, untainted by commerce. Silver is money, currency, filthy lucre. The stuff that runs Venice. Lead, of course, is the Christian choice--"the last shall  be first," says the Parable of the Vineyard. The meek shall inherit the earth. But if Portia is the Golden Fleece, she's also a sure source of silver. If she and her father imagine they are sifting out the fortune hunters with this game, they are in fact rigging the game in favor of gamblers and big risk-takers.  Bassanio--and the Venetian capitalists generally--are more that willing to "hazard all" in the hope of a big win.

That phrase "hazard all he hath" is reminiscent of the New Testament, too--the Christian soul must risk everything, be willing to lose everything, to attain treasures in heaven.

Once Bassanio wins, Portia practically throws herself at his feet, proclaiming that she wishes she had more to give him than her humble self.  She wishes she were "ten thousand times more rich, a thousand times more fair..."  She seems to know enough about him to raise the number when she's talking about money, doesn't she?  But it's pathetic, really. He's come to win her fortune, and she's so damned grateful to have him she's willing to give him even more. Her language is full of commercial metaphors:

...only to stand high in your account,
I might in virtues, beauties, livings, friends,
Exceed account. But the full sum of me
Is sum of something which, to term in gross
Is an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised...

"I'll go in debt to be more of what you value." Interesting choice of words, under the circumstances. She then goes on to proclaim him her "governor" and "king," and essentially gives him all her stuff--house, servants, fortune. Her one (fairytale) condition is that he not take off the ring she gives him, lest it "presage the ruin of [his] love."  It's an old motif, and of course he will violate the pact before the play ends.

But for now, he's hit the jackpot. Ka-ching!


  1. Interesting post, Bard Blogger, Gayle. Excellent discussion of the 3s in fairy tales and myth. Very funny portrait of some superficial characters especially the last guy who poses on the Jew's largesse, no? By the way, you have me reading Death in Venice!


  2. Death in Venice is awesome. You should check out the Visconti film, too--it's one of those rare movies from a book that really adds to one's experience of the story...