At Belmont, in a room in Portia's house, the Prince of Morocco surveys the three caskets — one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. He must choose one, and if he chooses the correct one, his reward will be the "fair Portia." As he reads the words engraved on the top of each casket, he ponders each of the cryptic inscriptions. On the leaden casket, he reads, "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath"; on the silver casket, he reads, "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves"; and on the golden casket, he reads, "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire." Portia informs him that the correct casket contains her picture.
Morocco reviews the inscriptions again and rejects the lead casket as being not worth the high stakes for which he gambles. He ponders a long time over the silver casket. The words "get as much as he deserves" intrigue him. He is quite sure that he deserves Portia; he deserves her "in birth," "in fortune," "in grace," "in qualities of breeding," and most of all, "in love." Yet, ultimately, he rejects the silver casket because he refuses to believe that Portia's father would "immure" a portrait of his treasured daughter in a metal "ten times undervalued [as] tried gold." The prince reasons that a portrait of Portia — a "mortal, breathing saint," a woman whom "all the world desires" — could be only within the golden casket. He chooses, therefore, the golden casket, hoping to find "an angel in a golden bed."
When he unlocks the casket and looks inside, he discovers only a skull ("carrion Death") and a scroll rolled up and inserted within the skull's "empty eye." He takes it out and reads the message: "All that glisters is not gold; . . . Gilded tombs do worms infold." Defeated and grieving, he makes a hasty exit with his entourage. "A gentle riddance," comments Portia.
In contrast to the scene preceding this one, now we have another colorful and theatrical spectacle of yet another rich suitor who has come to try and outwit fortune and claim Portia for his bride.
As Morocco inspects the caskets, Shakespeare is able to inform the audience more fully of the details of the casket competition for Portia's hand. The casket that will win her contains a miniature portrait of her, and all of the caskets have inscriptions upon them, which Morocco reads for us. These inscriptions are important; each succeeding suitor will reflect upon them, and as he does so, he will reveal the truth about his own character. The inscriptions are, of course, intentionally ambiguous; they can be interpreted in more than one way. Remembering that this is a romantic comedy, we expect that Morocco will misinterpret them, as will Arragon later, and that finally Bassanio will read the inscriptions and interpret them correctly.
We should remember as we read this scene that Portia herself, at this point, does not know which of the caskets will win her. As Morocco moves from one to the next, Portia will be reacting on stage, silently revealing her thoughts, for she cannot guide Morocco, and we have some evidence for believing that Portia is not usually a quiet woman.
Morocco's long speech, beginning at line 13, was no doubt inserted by Shakespeare to allow the actor plenty of time to move back and forth with much hesitation between the caskets. Talking to himself, he says, "Pause there, Morocco. . . . What if I strayed no further, but chose here?" He is postponing the moment of choice and prolonging the suspense of this dramatic moment. We have already seen Morocco and know that he is a proud and powerful prince, rich in his dress and in his language, and therefore it is no surprise to watch him move from the least beautiful and outwardly appealing of the caskets to the most beautiful; he has, he says, "a golden mind." Thus he makes the most straightforward and obvious choice — for him: the golden casket, for "Never so rich a gem / Was set in worse than gold." When he opens it and finds the skull and the scroll, Shakespeare's moral is clear — that is, wealth and sensory beauty, symbolized here by gold, are merely transitory: "Many a man his life hath sold / But my outside to behold." We shall see later that the test of the caskets contains a theme that occurs elsewhere in the play: the difference between what merely seems and what really is — that is, the difference between appearance and reality. The caskets also suggest another element in the play — namely, the illusion that material wealth (gold and silver) is of value, when, in reality, it is of ultimately little value. Yet material wealth is Shylock's obsession; gold is his real god, and therein is his tragic flaw.