The difference between appearance and reality is a constant theme in Shakespearean drama. In The Merchant of Venice it is an important aspect of the development of the plot and character both in the story of the bond, which unfolds in Venice, and in the tale of caskets, set in Belmont.
Shylock’s affected ‘kindness’ (I, iii, 140) in proposing the terms of his loan immediately illustrates the necessity for the characters to detect deception, and the dangers inherent in a superficial assessment of temperament and motives.
Earlier in the scene, Antonio has shown that he is aware of the need for incisive judgement: ‘O what a goodly outside falsehood hath! (I, iii, 99). Nonetheless he unfortunately proceeds to accept the ‘merry bond’ (I. iii, 69) at face value, thinking that Shylock ‘grows kind’ (I, iii, 174). Bassanio is less confident: ‘I like not fair terms and a villain’s mind’ (I, iii, 176).
The ability to look below the surface and perceive true values is exactly what the test of the caskets is designed for.
Morocco learns that ‘All that glisters is not gold’ (II, vii, 65), and Arragon is sped on his way with a maxim on the same theme (II, ix, 69-70):
There be fools alive iwis,
Silvered o’er, and so was this
Bassanio, who, on the other hand, appeared to see through Shylock’s hypocrisy, shows by his lengthy deliberation that he is not one of these ‘fools’. ‘The world is still deceived with ornaments’, which hides ‘grossness’ even in religion, a reminder of the way that Shylock manipulates scriptural texts.
‘Supposed fairness’, then, is (III, ii.100-101):
The sseming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest
Bassanio is successful simply because he refuses to judge by appearances (III, ii, 131-2):
You that choose not by the view
Chance as fair, and choose as true
This idea is illuminated many times in the course of the play. For instance, Lorenzo perceives the qualities he associates with Christians in his Jewish lover, for as Jessica points out: ‘though I am a daughter to his [Shylock’s] blood/ I am not to his manners’. (II, iii, 18-19).
Again, Launcelot’s comic discourse (II, ii, 1-28) touches on the same theme: his conscience should offer the best advice, but, on close examination, the fiend is really offering ‘the more friendly counsel’.
The happiness attained by these characters at the close of the play comes about through this ability to see beyond superficial appearances. For Bassantio and Lorenzo, in particular, it is the reward for perceiving beauty in virtue and love, not merely in ornament, physical appearance, or the circumstances of birth, which may be misleading.
Yet the play’s happy ending is also dependent on a benevolent form of deception which the characters do not detect. The blissful harmony of the final Act would be impossible without the artfulness of Portia in her disguise as the doctor of law. Her pretence is entirely constructive. It is like the artifice of the author, making use of the devices available in a comedy to save Antonio from the knife, and his friends from heartbreak. In the scene concerning the ring, it preserves Gratiano and Bassanio from disloyalty, as they unwittingly give away the symbols of their fidelity to their own wives in disguise.
However, it is important to realize that while the characters are completely taken in by Portia’s deception, the audience is not. We are fully aware of outrageous disguise and scheming which lie behind the contrived outcome of the trial. So, just as Bassantio has seen through the dull casing of the lead casket to find his heart’s desire, so the audience can perceive the love and social feeling embodied in Portia beneath the appearances of her legal attire and her pedantic legal quibbling. Moreover, by highlighting the disguise and artifice involved in averting disaster for Antonio and his friends, Shakespeare warns his audience not to take the play’s comic, happy ending to literally, and not to consider that the distinctions made in the play are intended to form a strict and practical code of ethics.