The Merchant of Venice is certainly a new, nerve-racking experience for me. Unlike Henry V, which I studied in high school, and The Tempest, which I've done costuming for in the past, Merchant is foreign territory for me. It's somewhat like standing at the lip of the airplane doorway waiting to try skydiving for the first time: you know it'll be fun and new and DEFINITELY interesting, but right now it's down-right TERRIFYING!!!
So in an effort to dispel some of my initial trepidation about the play, I started with some basic prereading on Wikipedia. Most of the synopsis was simple, an outlining of the plot and a brief character manifesto that included a few of the different themes the play had to offer. I did find it interesting, however, that the plot synopsis went into a fair amount of detail about the riddle that Portia's father put in to play. It contained each of the characters that tried to win her hand by way of the chests, as well as the rhymes located within each casket. It was a great attention-getter, as riddles are.
Well, the riddle got me thinking about past literature and modern media. I mean, the first thought that popped into my head was Odysseus facing the challenge of stringing his own bow to win his own wife's hand. That was also a riddle with an unlikely solution. And, just like Odysseus, the prize that Bassanio sought was that of a woman. Shakespeare may have been doing a bit of adapting himself.