The first of the three caskets is gold. The inscription on the outside reads:
Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.
On the inside is a skull with the following inscription:
All that glisters is not gold—
Often have you heard that told.
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscrolled.
Fare you well. Your suit is cold—
Cold, indeed, and labor lost.
On the most basic level, the gold casket is about how shallow it is to favor the surface alone. Many suitors have come to vie for Portia's hand due to her wealth and her beauty alone, ignoring her heart and intelligence. In the larger play itself, many characters place more value on money and valuables than anything else, commenting on society's obsession with materialism.
The silver casket's outer inscription reads:
Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.
When opened, the casket contains an image of a fool looking at a scroll and the following message:
How much unlike art thou to Portia!
How much unlike my hopes and my deservings!
"Who chooseth me shall have as much as he deserves"!
While the silver casket's message is ostensibly less ominous than the first, selection of it still betrays a shallow mind. The person selecting the silver casket must be less ambitious than the one who would choose gold, yet overall, less courageous and insightful than the one who would select the lead casket, the riskiest choice of them all.
The lead casket's inscription reads:
Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.
On the inside of the lead casket are an image of Portia and the following message:
You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true.
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content and seek no new.
If you be well pleased with this
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn you where your lady is
And claim her with a loving kiss.
The outer inscription speaks of how true love and all other important things in life are not easily won but rather cultivated over time. It urges the suitor not to see marriage to Portia as a gift but as something to invest in so it will be made worthwhile Love is also a risk ("must hazard all he hath"). By choosing the lead casket, Bassanio is showing he is able to look past the surface level and appreciate what lies beneath. His choice also relates to his love for Antonio, for whom he is willing to do much to save from Shylock's insistence on getting that pound of flesh.