In the past, we’ve discussed some of the puzzly conspiracies and theories that surround the works of William Shakespeare. But we’ve never discussed the actual puzzle that appears in one of his plays.
No, we’re not talking about the clever wordplay that leads Macbeth to believe his reign is unassailable. In today’s post, we’ll look at the puzzle from The Merchant of Venice that held the fate of the heiress Portia locked away.
In the play, Portia’s father devises a brain teaser to prevent unworthy suitors from winning his daughter’s hand. It is most likely inspired by those mind ticklers where there are three guards or three doors to choose from, each with different conditions.
Any suitor seeking Portia’s hand must choose one of three caskets in the hopes of picking the one with Portia’s picture inside. If the suitor chooses the wrong casket, he leaves empty-handed.
The prospective suitor’s only hints are the words on each of the three caskets.
- On the gold casket: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
- On the silver casket: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
- On the lead casket: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]
The puzzle is less about being tricked by logic or wordplay than it is carefully reading what is right in front of you. It’s about presentation, assumption, and intention.
Not only is the gold casket the most ostentatious, but it stabs at the heart of “what many men desire.” It represents the fallacy of choosing something for beauty and aesthetics alone, warning the wrong-headed suitor that “all that glitters is not gold.”
The silver casket isn’t as eye-catching, but the inscription reveals how presumptuous the suitor is. After all, “as much as he deserves” implies the hand of Portia, and it’s presumptuous in the extreme to assume that he was automatically worthy of Portia’s hand for the simple act of picking a casket.
The lead casket is the least attractive physically, but the most insightful. The inscription of the lead casket is all about one’s intentions. The suitor who chooses it is promising to not only be generous and work hard — to give all he hath — but be willing to sacrifice for the hand of Portia.
The suitor who chooses the lead casket — and finds the picture of Portia — doesn’t do so out of trophy-hunting vanity or grossly overestimating himself, he does so by pledging to devote everything he is and has to the task at hand… being worthy of Portia.
[Image courtesy of Pinterest.]
Of course, when it comes to both the play and Portia’s feelings on the matter, it works out nicely that the suitor who chooses the lead casket is also the man Portia loves.
It does raise the question, though, of what happens to the three caskets when Portia is married. Hopefully her father gave them to her as a wedding gift. Or at least melted them down into something more manageable. Imagine trying to pay your bills with caskets made of precious metals.
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