The Caskets Three
Some of the most important symbolism in the Merchant of Venice is that of the three caskets of gold, silver, and lead. Portia’s suitors must choose which casket contains Portia’s portrait – if they succeed, they earn the right to marry Portia; if they fail, they earn a quick trip home. These caskets illustrate the disparity between appearances and reality. The gold casket contains an outward engraving of the words, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” and the inward 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 infold./ Had you been wise as bold,/ Young in limbs, in judgement old,/ Your answer had not been enscrolled./ Fare you well; your suit is cold.”
The silver casket contains these words on the outside: ” Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Inside, a mirror and the following words are found: “The fire seven times tried this;/ Seven times tried that judgement is/ That did never choose amiss./ Some there be that shadows kiss;/ Such have but a shadow’s bliss./ There be fools alive, iwis/ Silvered o’er; and so was this./ Take what wife you will to bed,/ I will ever be your head./ So be gone, you are sped.”
On its exterior, the lead casket contains the words, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” The inside contains the following words: “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 had your fortune for your bliss,/ Turn you where your lady is,/ And claim her with a loving kiss.”
While the caskets and their contents may represent several possibilities, I believe that they represent the three ways the characters can represent themselves: publicly, privately, and individually.
The gold, like many public appearances, looks attractive, is desired by many, and is very moldable, even once it is set. Like the silver, private appearances to select few are often polished, look decent, and are fairly shapeable. But the lead, like the very interior of a person, is difficult to mold, not overly showy, and seemingly undervalued when compared to gold or silver. Yet it is the most durable, the most valuable for practical uses, and the hardest to change.
The captions on the caskets also correlate with the idea of public, private, and interior appearances and reality. “Many men desire” a public appearance, a chance to be known publicly, but does their mere desre make public appearance valuable? And who chooses private appearances “shall get what he deserves” because we can, to a large extent, determine or shape our private appearances and those we allow into our private social circles. Finally, to choose to appear true to inside, to our self, we must “give and hazard” all we have; first, in order to know ourselves and what we truly are, and second, in order to appear true to that internal reality to ourselves then ultimately, to others.
Another way to think about this is to see it as three ways we can respond to social pressures. If we are influenced only by social group pressure, we are like the gold casket: soft, least durable, easily shaped, possessing a showy appearance, fitting in with the standard set by a few but held by many, and void of any substance or worth inside. We allow others to dictate what we should be, therefore we end up being empty replicas of something many people desire simply because they know that others desire it.
If we are influenced more by our chosen little private circles, we are like the silver: a bit more durable, but we possess little of our own values or beliefs – we merely reflect them back from the others in our circle, and we get what we deserve because we can choose which private circles we belong to.
But if we are more influenced by what we believe to be right, we are more like the lead: the most durable, possessing strength and inner worth, for which we hazard all and give all to protect in the face of social persecution or exclusion.