© Victoria and Albert Museum
This casket looks convincingly golden, but is actually made of copper alloy covered in a thin layer of gilt or gold. Created in 16th-century Venice, it is elaborately engraved and enamelled with scrolls and arabesque patterns, inspired by Arabic objects brought to Venice by merchants.
The casket might remind us of the ‘three chests of gold, silver, and lead’ in The Merchant of Venice, which form part of the ‘lott’ry’ devised by Portia’s father before his death, to dictate whom she should marry (1.2.29–30). The suitor who chooses the casket containing Portia’s portrait earns the right to be her husband.
As a container for jewellery and other valuables, the casket in this picture – like those in The Merchant of Venice – seems to promise hidden treasures. But it might also alert us to the fact that gold can be deceptive. Shakespeare’s Prince of Morocco fails to win Portia’s hand when he chooses the gold casket. He is forced to recognise that ‘All that glisters is not gold’ (2.7.65). The allure of riches – a prominent theme in the play – leads ultimately to ‘carrion Death’ (2.7.63). Bassanio wins Portia by rejecting ‘gaudy gold’ and choosing the ‘meagre lead’ casket (3.2.101; 104).
The outline of the ‘pound of flesh’ story is found in Ser Giovanni’s Il Pecorone (1558), but Shakespeare takes his wooing scenes from another source: the ancient tale of ‘Three Caskets’ which exists in many different versions.
The tale forms part of a collection called the Gesta Romanorum first written in Latin in the 13th and 14th centuries, and a selection of the stories was printed in English (c. 1577 and 1595) by Richard Robinson. The story tells of a young girl who must prove her love for the emperor’s son by choosing from three vessels made of gold, silver and lead. When the lady chooses lead she is rewarded with gold, jewels and a husband. It is striking that Shakespeare gives the choice to three men rather than a woman, but he preserves many elements of the ‘Caskets’ tale.
Some critics have suggested that the romantic fairytale structure of the casket scenes in Belmont contrasts with the brutal, commercial world of 16th-century Venice. But others have argued that both Venice and Belmont work on the basis of mercantile risk and profit – and caskets appear in both settings. They are seen in Venice when Jessica takes one from Shylock (2.6.33).