Imagery in Merchant of Venice

I read ‘Merchant of Venice’ when I was around twelve years old. And it has been my favorite Shakespearean play since then. Firstly because it was this play which introduced me to the romantic world of Shakespearean comedy. And secondly, because I find Merchant of Venice, a simple play with subtle complex ideas.

The Plot

A young man Bassanio is in love with a wealthy heiress, Portia. To pursue his dream of marrying Portia, Bassanio borrows money from a Jew moneylender Shylock. Bassanio’s friend Antonio, who is a merchant in Venice and is hated by Shylock, becomes a guarantor in the bond. The ‘merry bond’ signed between the two parties calls for a pound of Antonio’s flesh in return if Bassanio fails to pay back the loan.

The Three Caskets

The three caskets in Merchant of Venice have amazed, fascinated and even bothered readers ever since. Different meanings have been attached to them. Some feel that they are part of religious teachings. Some belief the concept roots from an Estonian epic. Some highlight Shakespeare’s use of ‘three’ things in many of his plays. And so on. But the one thing that’s certain is these three caskets give to the readers, a beautiful and alluring imagery. Portia’s late father believed marriage to be an institution where one is supposed to give ones everything to ones spouse. To find a suitor with similar values for Portia, he devised a contest. Choice of three caskets is inflicted upon the suitors. Each casket is made from a different metal – gold, silver and lead. Each casket also bears an inscription,

Gold- ‘who chooseth me shall gain what men desire’

Silver- ‘who chooseth me get as much as he deserves’

Lead- ‘who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath’

Suitors from various countries choose one among them. Prince of Morocco chooses the golden one. He loses Portia’s hand and is told ‘All that glisters is not gold, often have you heard that told.’ The next prince chooses silver, and returns as well, empty handed. Surprisingly, Bassanio chooses the lead casket. Inside he finds a scroll written on it, ‘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 Meaning

Choosing a lead casket and getting a lady’s hand seems peculiar. But Shakespeare had his reasons. There are many explanations given to the image. One is that desire should always be resisted. Desire will be to choose gold and hence get ‘what men desire.’ But this should be abstained from. Other thing the caskets suggest is that appearances can be deceiving, i.e. ‘all that glitters isn’t gold.’ The essence of the inscription on the lead casket (‘must give and hazard all he hath’) is that any relationship calls for absolute faith. Faith for which a person is ready to risk and sacrifice all that he has.

In The End

Many scholars have attributed different implications of the three caskets. Like Sigmund Freud believed that three caskets implied three women with certain qualities; and ‘a suitor choosing among three caskets’ a case ‘a man’s choice between three women.’