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

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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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