What do the three caskets represent in The Merchant of Venice?

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

According to her father's will, the man who selects the right casket will win Portia's hand in marriage. The caskets are made of gold, silver, and lead.

When the first suitor, the Prince of Morocco, picks the golden casket, assuming gold, the most valuable of the three metals, must represent the great worth of Portia, he learns, to his dismay, that he is wrong. He is told that what is on the inside of a person is more important than outward appearances: 

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside do behold:
Gilded tombs do worms infold.

The second suitor, the Prince of Arragon, selects the silver casket. He, too, learns a lesson about valuing the surface (in this case, words) more than what is inside: 

The world is still deceiv'd with ornament,
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being season'd, with a gracious voice
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it, and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament.

In the first case, the golden casket represents the mistake that outward physical show, such as a costly tomb, can hide the fact of what is happening inside. In the second case, the silver casket represents the error of beautiful words trying to mask evil: in both law and religion, no matter what  words are used to gloss over the reality, an underlying evil remains an evil.

The lead casket is the correct choice, because what lies within is more valuable than the mere surface appeal (or lack thereof) of the dull lead. When Bassanio picks the lead casket, he reveals that he values the inner worth of Portia more than outward appearances.  Shakespeare is thus arguing that true value emerges from what is inside the soul of person rather than any external show of wealth or of beautiful words.


mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice categorized under the high comedies, is a romantic comedy that takes place in the exotic Venice, the world of commerce in the sixteenth century.  This is the social world in which the play evolves.

In Belmont, Portia bemoans the conditions of her father's will that states that she must marry the man who correctly identifies one of three caskets, and Portia complains, making use of pun,

...so is the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father. (I.ii.24-25).

However. the strong-willed Portia (to use a pun, also) is not content to merely obey these wishes.  In presenting the casket to the first two suitors, she remains neutral. But, when Bassanio comes as a suitor, she interlaces a song with hints for him.  The three caskets, one in gold, another in silver, and a third in lead, all contain scrolls that tell whoever opens them his fate.  In a sense, the three caskets represent the type of person that the suitor is.

Gold casket

  • superficial person who looks at outward appearances
  • greedy person
  • selfish person who thinks of his immediate gain first
  • a person who takes before giving anything
  • a person used to luxury

Silver casket

  • a person who thinks in terms of monetary gain
  • a person who is not wealthy, but aspires to be
  • a false person who waivers in his desire for wealth and his pretense to be non-materialistic

Lead casket

  • a person not concerned with appearances
  • a risk-taker
  • a person who values non-materialistic possessions
  • a person who gives with no thought of reward
  • a cerbral and spiritual person
Read the study guide:
The Merchant of Venice

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