The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Symbolism and inscriptions of the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice

Summary:

The three caskets in The Merchant of Venice symbolize different values and human desires. The gold casket, inscribed "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire," represents greed and superficiality. The silver casket, with "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves," symbolizes merit and self-worth. The lead casket, stating "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath," signifies risk and sacrifice for true love.

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

The test of the three caskets was set up by Portia’s late father as a way of deterring gold diggers and time wasters. The old man knew that his daughter, being both rich and good-looking, would attract more than her fair share of suitors. But he wanted to make sure that they’d be the right suitors, the kind who’d love Portia for herself and not for her phenomenal wealth.

With that in mind, he arranged it so that Portia’s suitors would only be able to marry her if they chose the right casket. Each of Portia’s would-be husbands would be presented with three caskets: one gold, one silver, and one made out of lead. If they chose the gold casket, then they would be disqualified because this would show that they are shallow and materialistic and only interested in Portia for her money.

By the same token, those who chose the silver casket would demonstrate that they regard surface appearances as what really matters in life. As with the gold diggers, they would have shown themselves to be unworthy of marrying Portia.

But any man who chose the lead casket would be the right one for Portia. He would be demonstrating to the whole world that he regards what’s on the inside as being much more important than what’s on the outside. Fortunately, just such a man exists, and he happens to be Bassanio, the man of Portia’s dreams.

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

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.
(II.vii.65-69)

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.
(III.ii.74-80)

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.

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

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
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What do the inscriptions and scrolls on all three caskets in The Merchant of Venice mean?

In The Merchant of Venice, to win Portia's hand, her suitor must choose the right casket among three choices. One casket is lead, one gold, and one silver.

The inscription on the gold casket reads, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire," while the silver casket states, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves." The lead casket has written on it, "Who chooses me must give and hazard all he hath."

The first two caskets, of gold and silver, are the wrong choice. The scrolls that are inside each one help explain why. The first starts with the words "all the glisters is not gold" and ends with "your suit is cold." The scroll implies that the person who chooses the gold casket is interested in the wealth (gold) he will gain from the marriage and not in Portia herself: he is "cold" towards her. Likewise, the scroll that accompanies the silver casket says, "I [silver or wealth] will ever be your head"—meaning, as with the gold casket, that the suitor is more interested in what he can gain from the marriage than what he can give.

The lead casket, which Bassanio correctly chooses, asks for risk and sacrifice for Portia. The "bliss" gained, as this casket's scroll implies, is in Portia herself, and the scroll bids the beloved to "claim" Portia "with a loving kiss." This is the correct choice, because it asks the suitor to put Portia's needs first, ahead of his own desires.

One must note that Antonio shows his love for Bassanio by doing what the lead casket asks. He makes a sacrifice and is willing to risk all for his friend by entering into the loan deal with Shylock. This example of true caring and giving seems to have rubbed off on Bassanio in choosing the casket that asks for similar sacrifices from him.

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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?

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.

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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?

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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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?

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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In The Merchant of Venice, what does the lead casket's scroll mean?

This scene portrays a theme central to the play: judging by appearances is wrong, just as judging by stereotypes is wrong. We see the stereotype theme in the insults aimed at Shylock; his resentment at being insulted for being a Jew is expressed in his anger at Antonio, who who serves as a sort of scapegoat for Shylock's response to the general prejudice aimed at him.

The silver and gold caskets are made from the more well-known precious metals; the association of quality or beauty with these metals means a potential suitor for Portia would feel reasonably confident in choosing one of these caskets. Portia is more than a beautiful woman, however; she is highly intelligent, compassionate, and creative. Her wealth and reputation for being beautiful attracts many suitors. The lead casket is less valuable and outwardly beautiful than the gold and silver. As a result, this quote refers to the "view" of physical beauty and an obvious look of value. By choosing the lead casket, Bassanio shows he knows qualities beyond beauty and wealth are important, proving himself to be her true suitor. He can "claim her" with a kiss. 

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What was inscribed on the three caskets in The Merchant of Venice?

In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia's father wrote in his will that whoever wishes to marry Portia must solve a riddle of three small caskets—one gold, one silver, and one lead—each of which has a cryptic inscription.

If the suitor chooses the casket with Portia's portrait inside, he receives Portia's hand in marriage.

If the suitor fails to choose the casket containing Portia's portrait, he agrees never to reveal his choice to another of Portia's suitors and to remain a bachelor for the rest of his life.

The Prince of Morocco, the first of Portia's suitors to agree to the terms of the will, is led to a room containing the three caskets. A curtain in front of the caskets is drawn aside, and the Prince reads the inscriptions on the caskets.

PRINCE OF MOROCCO: The first, of gold, who this inscription bears:
Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire.
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
Who chooseth me, shall get as much as he deserves.
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath.
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

PORTIA: The one of them contains my picture, prince;
If you choose that, then I am yours withal. (2.7.4–12)

The Prince spends a considerable amount of time trying to decipher the meaning of the inscriptions, and he eventually chooses the gold casket.

He makes the wrong choice and is rewarded with a scroll that begins with the famous line "All that glisters is not gold . . ."

The Prince of Arragon is the second suitor to try his luck with the caskets, and he chooses the silver casket. He, too, makes the wrong choice, and he is sent away with the portrait of a fool.

PRINCE OF ARRAGON: With one fool's head I came to woo,
But I go away with two. (2.9.75–76)

The final suitor is Bassanio, Portia's choice to be her husband. She implores him to go away for a day or two and take the time to think carefully about his choice. Bassanio doesn't want to wait.

BASSANIO: Let me choose;
For, as I am, I live upon the rack. (3.2. 25–26)

Bassanio chooses the lead casket, in which he finds Portia's portrait and a scroll.

BASSANIO: [reading the scroll] 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 pleas'd with this,
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn you where your lady is,
And claim her with a loving kiss. (3.2.135–142)

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