How did they (stage the casket scene) in The Merchant of Venice

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a Venetian jewelry casket from about 1590 – perhaps this is the casket we should imagine….

In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, Portia’s father has left a riddle for any potential suitor. To Win Portia’s hand in marriage the suitors must choose from three Caskets – one of gold, one silver and one lead. (Anyone who has ever read a fairy tale will be able to hazard a guess as to the correct choice – but Portia’s suitors are less well read than we are!)

Caskets is a rather vague term and really could signify a number of different things  but whatever is literally used there are a few practical problems to solve. The caskets can’t be too small – they need to be seen by the whole audience. The caskets must be easy to get on and off the stage – as other scenes do not use them at all. The caskets must be able to be opened without being destroyed and they need to be large enough to contain a scroll and the objects mentioned in the script.

It is likely that they where three medium sized objects mounted on pedestals to give the audience a good view of them. But where might they have been? The simple solution is to put them in the discovery space – perhaps slightly forward of that space behind a curtain. The clue to this being a likely solution is found in the text itself here Portia is about to let one of her suitors (The Prince of Morocco) choose a casket


Go draw aside the curtains and discover
The several caskets to this noble prince.
Now make your choice.


So the curtains and drawn and the caskets revealed and the Prince makes his choice. Wrongly. Happily for Portia the man she likes is the only man to make the right choice…

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Rituparna Ray Chaudhuri
  • Rituparna Ray Chaudhuri

    How does Act I Scene1 set the mood of the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’?

    -The moon shines
    bright: in ‘such a night’ as thus.

    When the sweet
    wind did gently kiss the trees.

    And they did make
    no noise.-

    It is a genre, in which Shakespeare is a master. For the
    other great comedy of the world’s literature, the comedy of Moliere or Ben
    Jonson, is different in kind to his. The
    play, ‘The Merchant of Venice’, resolves itself purely into a simple form. It
    illustrates the clash between the emotional and the intellectual characters,
    the man of heart and the man of brain. The man of heart, Antonio, is obsessed
    by tenderness for his friend. The man of brain is obsessed by lust to uphold
    intellect in a thoughtless world that makes intellect bitter in every age. Shylock,
    is a man of intellect, who born into a despised race. It is a tragedy, that the
    generous Gentiles about him can be generous to everything, except to intellect
    and Jewish blood. Intellect and Jewish blood are too proud to attempt to understand
    the Gentiles who cannot understand. Shylock is a proud man. The Gentiles, who are
    neither proud nor intellect, spit upon him and flout him.

    “How like a fawning
    publican he looks!

    I hate him for he is
    a Christian;

    But more that in low

    He lends out money gratis,
    and brings down

    The rate of usance
    here with us in Venice.”

    All we can say, is that in the tragedies,
    the dramatist seeks to entertain generally mainly by playing on our capacity to
    shudder and shed tears whereas in the comedies are the Elizabethan feelings,
    whether humorous or sentimental. Shakespeare
    has a careful selection of the titles of his plays. His tragedies and historic
    plays are named after the central character of the play. His comedies on the
    other hand, are named after weak and passive characters; similar is the case
    with the present play. It has been named after Antonio, the merchant of Venice,
    a weak and passive character suffering from nameless melancholy. As with
    character, so with the feelings, the gaiety and folly and pensive sentiments of
    love are portrayed to the life, but not its pain, nor its mystery-its
    profounder influence on the character of the lover.

    “Let me play the

    With mirth and
    laughter let old wrinkles come,

    And let my liver
    rather heat with wine

    Than my heart cool
    with mortifying groans.

    Why should a man, whose
    blood is warm within,

    Sleep when he wakes ,
    and creep into the jaundice

    By being peevish?”

    If there is a moment of anxiety or sorrow, it passes and leaves
    no mark when things go well again. Melancholy Antonio is so not very melancholy
    at the end of the play, though he has been in danger of a dreadful death hours
    before. Shakespeare has been regarded as a master of opening scenes. No matter what terms we may use, the fact
    cannot be denied that an author, while portraying life and human nature in his
    work, gives his own point of view to us in the process. Every author looks a
    life from a certain angle, and that determines the kind of reality he depicts
    in his work.

    “Then let us say you
    are sad

    Because you are not
    merry: and ‘twere as easy

    For you to laugh and
    leap, and say you are merry

    Because you are not

    The opening scene of play’ The Merchant of Venice’ fully
    illustrates this view. The play simply begins on a street in Venice. Antonio , the
    protagonist, a rich and prosperous merchant appears as a kind of a brooding man,
    who says that he regards this world as the stage of a theatre on which every
    man has to play a certain role, his own role being a sad man.

    “ I hold the world
    but as the world, Gratiano;

    A stage where every
    man must play a part,

    And mine a sad one.”

    Gratiano, another friend, who says in contrast that he would
    like to play the role of a happy and jovial man wanting that the wrinkles of
    old age should come to him with mirth and laughter. He ridicules the man who is
    too serious and solemn, and who pretends to be “Sir Oracle”, wanting all others
    to become silent when he is about to open his mouth to speak.

    “I’ll tell thee more
    of this another time:

    But fish not, with
    this melancholy bait,

    For this fool-gudgeon,
    this opinion.”

    Salerino and Solanio, other friends, are talkative persons
    as Gratiano is, though Gratiano has more wit and is more glib-tongued than
    they. Solanio says that he too would be feeling melancholy at this time if his
    ships were sailing upon the sea; and Salerino
    elaborates this view as his speech contains of vivid pictures of a ship
    being tossed by the sea-waves and getting struck in shallow waters or
    over-turning after a collision with dangerous rocks.

    “Should I go to

    And see the holy
    edifice of stone,

    And not bethink me
    straight of dangerous rocks,

    Which touching but my
    gentle vessel’s side

    Would scatter all her
    spices on the stream,

    Enrobe the roaring
    waters with my silks..”

    Salerino, in another speech is
    reasonably distinguishes now between the two kind of men, those who are always melancholy
    and sullen, those who are always laughing and chattering.

    “Nature hath fram’d
    strange fellows in her time:

    Some that will evermore
    peep through their eyes,

    And laugh like
    parrots at a bag-piper;

    And other of such
    vinegar aspect

    That they’ll not show
    their teeth in the way of smile,

    Though Nestor swear
    the jest be laughable’’..

    Bassanio, Antonio’s best friend, however, is a prodigal young
    intelligent man, is also romantic with an enterprising and adventurous spirit.
    He wants to try his luck at Belmont but he has no money. He had previously
    taken a loan from Antonio, whom he has not yet repaid. He now asks him for again,
    another loan. He has an ingenious and fertile mind therefore too. Asking for a
    second loan, he refers over here to one of his boyhood habits. He says that
    whenever as a school-boy he lost one arrow, he used to shoot another arrow in
    the same direction, succeeding in finding the first arrow, besides recovering
    the second.

    ..”I donot doubt,

    (As I will watch the
    aim) to find both,

    Or bring your latter
    hazard back again,

    And thankfully rest debtor
    for the first.”

    This scene, further introduces to the play’s compassionate
    natured heroine, Portia, who is quite obviously resourceful and confident of
    herself can able to take quick decisions to put them into action with
    intelligent plans. She has been much praised during two centuries of
    criticisms. She is one of the smiling things created in the large and gentle
    mood that moved Shakespeare to comedy. The scene in the fifth act, where the
    two women, coming home from Venice by night, see the candle burning in the
    hall, as they draw near, is full of naturalness that makes beauty quicken at

    “The man that hath no
    music in himself,

    Nor is not moved with
    concord of sweet sounds,

    Is fit for treasons,
    strategems, and spoils;”

    However, though not directly, but through Bassanio’s
    description of her in the opening scene, he is speaking to Antonio about his to
    go to Belmont in an effort to win ‘her’. In this description, loyal Portia is here
    described as “a lady richly left”, as “fair, and, fairer than that word”, and
    “of wondrous virtues.” Bassanio becomes eloquent when he goes on to describe

    “Her name is Portia;
    nothing undervalu’d

    To Cato’s daughter,
    Brutus’ Portia;

    Nor is the wide world
    ignorant of her worth,

    For the four winds
    blow in from every coast

    Renowned suitors;”..

    Of the mature comedy, the foundations of the major stories
    of the play hence have been laid very clearly and firmly. Indeed, Shakespeare became
    successful in his skill of becoming an architect who had built up the plots
    with his many-sided genius in the portrayal of his characters. It is wonderful
    that Shakespeare has built up this play in such a way that the impacts of each
    of ‘the two stories’ are found in the opening scene.

    ‘The Merchant of Venice ‘consists of four plots- two major
    and two minor, so intricately interwoven to form one whole integrated story.
    The two main plots comprise ‘The Bond Story’ and ‘The Lottery of Caskets’.
    These two plots are closely interlinked.
    The main plot of this play pertains to Antonio and the Jew and money-lender,
    and of the bond that Antonio sighs and subsequently forfeits. This story is
    known as ‘The Bond Story’.

    “Why thou-loss upon loss!
    the thief gone so much,

    And so much to find
    the thief; and no satisfaction,

    No revenge: nor no
    ill luck stirring but what lights

    O’ my shoulders; no
    sighs but o’ my breathing;

    No tears but o’ my

    The other major story pertains to the will left by Portia’s father,
    laying down the condition which a suitor of Portia must fulfil before he can
    claim Portia’s hand in marriage. This is known as ‘’The Casket Story”.

    “O my Antonio, had I
    but the means

    To hold a rival place
    with one of them,

    I have a mind presage
    me such thrift

    That I should
    questionless be fortunate.”

    Bassanio, asks therefore for a loan of three thousand ducats
    from Antonio in order to be able to go to Belmont to try to win Portia as his
    wife. Antonio, who has no cash in hand, hence asks Bassanio to borrow money in
    his name as the guarantor from some money-lender or merchant. Both the stories hence
    have been set afoot at the same time and the stories have closely interwoven
    also. Without the one, the other has no obvious significance of its own.

    “You know me well,
    and herein spend but time

    To wind about my love
    with circumstance;

    And out of doubt you
    do me now more wrong

    In making questions
    of my uttermost

    Than if you had made
    waste of all I have.”

    The two sub-plots in the play are- The Jessica-Lorenzo love
    story and The Ring Episode. Both these sub-plots are interrelated to each other
    and to the main plot as well. However, this former story includes Jessica,
    Shylock’s daughter, falls in love with Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio.
    Both the lovers go to Belmont, where Portia entrusts them with the responsibility
    of looking after her household, till she remains in Venice for the trial of
    Antonio. When the Court scene reveals
    Shylock at his most horrible and the Christians also not at very best, the
    scene immediately shifts to a peaceful vicinity of Belmont, where on a glorious
    moonlit night the run-away lovers Lorenzo and Jessica are seen in Portia’s
    garden engaged in a highly romantic conversation bandying the names of lovers
    of bygone times and distant climes. Lorenzo and Jessica get half the share of
    Shylock’s wealth when Shylock loses the case against Antonio.

    The next episode constitutes one
    of the important stories in the play. It is only after Bassanio wins the lottery
    of caskets, that Portia marries him and gives him a ring as a token of their
    love. She takes a promise from Bassanio
    that he will never part with the ring. At the same time, Nerissa married Gratiano
    and gives him a ring, with the promise from him that he will not part with it
    at any cost. The rings represent wealth as well as emotional value. This is
    known as ‘The Ring Episode’, acts as an offshoot of the Casket story. Then it
    is connected with the Bond Story in the Trial scene, as Bassanio and Gratiano give
    their rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively as a token of gratitude for
    saving Antonio.

    “The quality of mercy
    is not strained

    It droppeth as the
    gentle rain from heaven

    Upon the place
    beneath; It is twice blessed

    It blesseth him that
    gives and him that takes.”

    Justice and mercy, as
    delivered in the play, do not appear to be as sweet, selfless and full of grace
    as presented by Portia. The play depends on the theme of appearance and reality
    to enrich the plot and to present the atmosphere and to create the suspense in
    the storyline. The exposition of the play is therein to the audience to convey the
    circumstances that unfold, leading up to the events of the play. Outward
    appearances are liable to be deceptive. This principle is best demonstrated
    through the lottery of the caskets. In the choice of caskets, not only their
    appearance but the mottoes inscribed on them are to be considered:

    “Gold: Who
    chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.

    Silver: Who
    chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.

    Lead: Who chooseth
    me must give and hazard all he hath.”

    Thus the plot of the play,
    determines the general framework but into it are fitted the other elements
    which enrich and diversify their sense of pleasure. There is an Elizabethan
    phrase-‘A Paradise of Dainty and Delight.’ The phrase
    well described the romantic comedy except that daintiness is not essential. Any
    delight has a right to be admitted to the paradise. In the words of Raleigh,
    the last Act of the play of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is ‘an exquisite piece of
    Romantic Comedy’ and Shylock has no place there. It is easier to find an
    analogy to Shakespeare’s comedies in musical compositions than in his classical
    comedy proper. Shakespeare is closer to Mozart that to Moliere.

    ‘’ The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
    Are of imagination all compact.”


    [Except References, ideas, contextualized, settings,- orientation
    of words and its elaboration from Dr. S. Sen (of Critical Evaluations), Rajinder Paul,Textual Workbook and other].

  • E Dollimore

    Dear AF, This series is aimed at GCSE / A level students who are asked to study original staging conditions. I teach these students myself and they often do not know these fairly basic facts about staging. This series is not intended as original research or insight (as you can clearly tell) rather as a revision guide for those who do need simple questions answered. Many teachers have told me they find it very useful. This blog has something for everyone – articles in more depth for readers like yourself and simple pieces for those early in their educational journey. Shakespeare after all belongs to us all.

  • AFDavis

    Could Ms Dollimore be more superficial if she tried? I expect a little more depth to articles posted here. This effort is hardly worthy of a GCSE level student.

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