Major Symbols and Motifs
Explore the different symbols within William Shakespeare's comedic play, The Merchant of Venice. Symbols are central to understanding The Merchant of Venice as a play and identifying Shakespeare's social and political commentary.
Portia is the only character whom it is difficult to criticize, and Shakespeare appears to use her as a symbol of mercy and forgiveness. The symbolism of Portia becomes most apparent when she travels to Venice, disguised as a lawyer. Because Venice can be thought of as symbolizing the real world, whereas Belmont is the world of idealism, when Portia travels to Venice, she is a character from the fantasy world entering the dangerous city. Her idealistic beliefs must come face to face with reality.
Portia's suitors must choose one of three caskets; gold, silver, or lead. One of the caskets contains a portrait of Portia; the others do not. If the suitor chooses the casket containing Portia's picture, he has won the right to marry her. But none has succeeded so far.Attached to the caskets are inscriptions. The inscription on the leaden casket does not sound as enticing as the others, because it requires the chooser to risk everything he has. The inscriptions on the gold and silver caskets are different; they tell the chooser that he will gain something by choosing them. But the inscriptions have double meanings.