Choosing Loves in The Merchant of Venice

“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire,” the gold casket says. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves,” says the silver casket. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has,” says the lead casket. (II.VII, 5,7,9) The portrait of Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young noblewoman, lies in one of these caskets; if a suitor picks that casket, he weds her, but if he choose another, he must forswear marriage forever. Besides finding Portia’s husband, the caskets illustrate different ways – gilded but false, or true as a plumbed line – of looking at love.

Three suitors try for Portia: the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket and finds within a death’s head; the Prince of Arragon chooses the silver and finds “the portrait of a blinking idiot” (II.IX, 54); and finally, Bassanio – Portia’s own choice could she but choose – finds her portrait in the lead casket.

Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire. What love – or “love” – does the gold casket stand for? A scroll within reads partly:

“All that glisters is not gold;

Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms infold.”

II.VII, 65, 67-69

This “love” is founded on desire and appearances. It is about gaining, not giving, and is hollow within, as those find who sell their lives for the gilding of pleasure.

Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves. Perhaps there is a key to the silver casket in Bassanio’s rejection of it: “Nor none of thee, thou pale and common drudge ‘tween man and man” (III.II, 103-4). I think this may be a view of relationships which says ‘well, we can’t get real joy, so we may as well take what we can’: the silver casket rejects the hollow hopes of the gold, but remains self-centered.

Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he has. The first two suitors are put off by the lead casket. “Must give: for what? For lead? Hazard for lead? … I’ll then nor give nor hazard aught for lead,” says the Prince of Morocco (II.VII, 17, 21). Yet Portia’s portrait is in this casket.

Remember the casket’s charge: must give and hazard all he has. But the suitors have already vowed that if they do not wed Portia, they will not wed anyone. By choosing any casket they are giving and hazarding all they have! It is the lead casket which speaks the plain truth. Similarly, when we try to love in any way, we are giving and hazarding all we have – even if we take the hazard of trying to keep, instead of give, ourselves. Bassanio recognizes this, and that real love not only can or should be but is about giving, and chooses the right love and the right casket.

“But thou, thou meagre lead,
Which rather threat’nest than dost promise aught,
Thy plainness moves me more than eloquence;
And here choose I. Joy be the consequence!”

III.II, 104-7