What were the inscriptions and contents of the three caskets, and what significance do they play on the course of the plot in The Merchant of Venice?

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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.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on February 19, 2020
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The significance of the caskets lies in the fact that they show love as being the most important factor in marriage. The riddle of the three caskets was devised by Portia's father to weed out all the foolish, ignorant gold-diggers beating a path to her door. The gold and silver caskets symbolize the sin of greed—one of the play's recurring themes—and how fleeting and unimportant are the things of this world in comparison with love. Most aristocratic marriages at that time were arranged by families, strategic alliances based on wealth and power. So Portia's father, by insisting on a smart suitor who genuinely loves Portia for herself and not for her money, is doing something quite unique in setting up the riddle.

The gold casket bears the inscription:

"Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire."

Unfortunately for Morocco, he thinks that "what many men desire" is gold, so he chooses the gold casket, displaying his greed for all to see. However, when he opens the casket he gets a nasty surprise: a skull with an inscription that reads:

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. (Act II Scene VII)
So that's the end of Morocco's chances. Up next is the silver casket, which bears the following inscription:
"Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves."
The second suitor, the Duke of Arragon, is rather like the first in that he values surface over substance, so he unwisely plumps for the silver casket. Inside, he finds a picture of a fool holding a scroll. On that scroll is written the following:
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"! (Act II Scene IX).
Finally, and with a little help from Portia's none-too-subtle hints, comes Bassanio, the man she wants to marry. As we saw earlier, in act 2, scene 7, the inscription on the lead casket reads:
"Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath."
Bassanio shows himself a worthy suitor by ignoring all the surface glitter of the gold and silver caskets and choosing the lead casket, the one that symbolizes humility and modesty. When Bassanio opens up the casket, he's delighted to find a portrait of fair Portia with a scroll that says:
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. (Act III Scene II).
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The first casket is gold and reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold box. Inside he finds “A carrion Death, within whose empty eye / There is a written scroll!” The scroll chastises him for being tempted by gold: “All that glitters is not gold; / Often have you heard that told.” It says many men have given their lives for gold, but, no matter how rich, everyone dies.

The second is silver, and says, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” This box, which the Prince of Arragon selects, contains “the portrait of a blinking idiot” and a note about why this is what he deserves. Silver, like gold, is “but a shadow’s bliss.” The third casket is lead. Its inscription warns, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Bassanio correctly chooses this case, which contains Portia’s portrait. The scroll congratulates him for choosing “not by the view.” Lead might be ugly, but appearances are not important.

These cases are crucial to Portia’s future. Her father required that her vast fortune only go to the man who selects correctly. That person wins both Portia’s hand in marriage and her inheritance. According to her “wise” father, only a deserving suitor shall be rewarded. Fortunately for Portia, her crush Bassanio is the lucky man.

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