Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Three Caskets
The contest for Portia’s hand, in which suitors from various
countries choose among a gold, a silver, and a lead casket, resembles
the cultural and legal system of Venice in some respects. Like the
Venice of the play, the casket contest presents the same opportunities
and the same rules to men of various nations, ethnicities, and religions. Also
like Venice, the hidden bias of the casket test is fundamentally Christian.
To win Portia, Bassanio must ignore the gold casket, which bears
the inscription, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire”
The Pound of Flesh
The pound of flesh that Shylock seeks lends itself to multiple interpretations: it emerges most as a metaphor for two of the play’s closest relationships, but also calls attention to Shylock’s inflexible adherence to the law. The fact that Bassanio’s debt is to be paid with Antonio’s flesh is significant, showing how their friendship is so binding it has made them almost one. Shylock’s determination is strengthened by Jessica’s departure, as if he were seeking recompense for the loss of his own flesh and blood by collecting it from his enemy. Lastly, the pound of flesh is a constant reminder of the rigidity of Shylock’s world, where numerical calculations are used to evaluate even the most serious of situations. Shylock never explicitly demands that Antonio die, but asks instead, in his numerical mind, for a pound in exchange for his three thousand ducats. Where the other characters measure their emotions with long metaphors and words, Shylock measures everything in far more prosaic and numerical quantities.
The ring given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman
named Leah, who is most likely Shylock’s wife and Jessica’s mother,
gets only a brief mention in the play, but is still an object of
great importance. When told that Jessica has stolen it and traded
it for a monkey, Shylock very poignantly laments its loss: “I would
not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” (III.i.
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