This elaborate Jewish marriage-ring has a delicate pattern of twisted gold threads and bright enamel flowers. The ring forms a Star of David, but the sixth point is replaced by a gabled roof – probably a Holy Temple – with a hinge that opens to reveal a tiny secret compartment.

The date and origin of the ring are difficult to determine, since traditional jewellery-making techniques changed so little over the centuries. It may be from Venice, Germany or perhaps Eastern Europe, and was probably made between the 16th and 19th centuries.

What is the symbolism of rings in The Merchant of Venice?

Rings are part of the complex relationship between human and material value, sexual and financial desire in The Merchant of Venice. The word ‘ring’ – and rings themselves – are swapped repeatedly in the play. They have symbolic value as love tokens, as well as monetary value as objects. In Shakespeare’s time, they also had additional connotations: the ‘ring’ was a metaphor for honour and devotion, but it was also used bawdily to mean vagina. Rings take on different meanings as they are given, stolen, or exchanged as part of punning wordplay.

Tragedy and comedy

The symbolism of the rings seems subtly different for the Jews and Christians, though both groups exploit their financial and romantic values. When Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with the Christian Lorenzo, she steals a turquoise ring given to Shylock by Leah before they were married, and swaps it ‘for a monkey’ (3.1.118–22). Although it is not a wedding band, the ring is a poignant symbol of Shylock’s love and his daughter’s betrayal. It reveals the depth of his human loss, though we often tend to focus on his financial concern with his jewels.

Shylock’s tragedy contrasts with the Christians’ comic resolution. Rings are used to seal the marriage between Portia and Bassanio, Nerissa and Gratiano, but the women playfully use them to test their husbands’ loyalty. While disguised as a lawyer and his clerk, they demand the rings from their men, and accuse them of giving them to other women. Here, though, the threat of betrayal is soon replaced by laughter and innuendo. In the final lines Gratiano swears, ‘I'll fear no other thing / So sore, as keeping safe Nerissa's ring’ (5.1.306–07). The ring is reclaimed as a symbol of love and desire which is denied to Shylock.