17th-century scales and coin weights


The authorities in Shakespeare’s England faced the persistent problem of criminals clipping metal from coins and passing them off at face value. In the 16th and 17th centuries, special kits like this one were made to prevent and expose this practice. This carved wooden case, made in England in c. 1620, includes brass scales and a set of weights to gauge if coins are heavy enough.

Scales as a symbol of justice

Scales also symbolise the idea of justice and the fair weighing of evidence. Justitia, the Roman goddess of justice, is often represented with a balance in her left hand and a double-edged sword in her right, to suggest her judicial powers. The goddess is sometimes blindfolded to symbolise blind justice or impartiality.

Money and justice in The Merchant of Venice

These ideas of financial greed, precise weights and the power of justice come together in the court scene (4.1) of The Merchant of Venice. Shylock, the moneylender, has made a bond with Antonio, the merchant, to extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he fails to repay 3,000 ducats. Antonio breaks the terms of the loan and Shylock demands ‘justice’ (3.3.8) even when he is offered money over the odds to show the merchant mercy.

But the idea of justice – symbolised by accurate weights – comes back to bite Shylock. Portia, disguised as a judge, insists that he should shed ‘no blood’ and cut neither ‘less nor more’ than a pound or he will be severely punished by law: ‘if the scale do turn / But in the estimation of a hair, / Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate’ (4.1.325; 330–32).

Full title:
Set of balance, coin weights and box
c. 1620
Nicholas Briot
© Trustees of the British Museum
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Museum Number: W.3159

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