Three “Caskets” for a Shakespeare Play

I get strange commissions.

Earlier this year, some of my students decided that they were going to put on Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which includes a love story in which a suitor has to choose one of three boxes, or “caskets” in Elizabethan parlance, in order to win his woman.  (There’s also a dramatic courtroom scene, another love-story subplot, and a lot of anti-Semitism, but that’s beside the point.)

As my students’ professor, mentor, and guide in all things literary, my contribution to the play was simple: build the three caskets. The only requirement was that each had to be big enough to hold a framed photo, a Mardi Gras mask, and a human skull, respectively.  I could use pine since they would all be painted.

Even though they chose a 20th-century setting for the play, I decided that a throwback to Shakespeare’s time would be appropriate, so I made each casket was in the style of a 17th-century “Bible box,” which offers ease of construction, structural strength (stage props tend to get pretty beat up), and an opportunity to practice relief carving.

The first one was to be painted gold, so I thought a sunburst would be appropriate.  The star motif is incredibly easy to do–just eight quick strokes of the V-tool.

The second one was to be painted silver, and since I had just done a sunburst, a set of moon phases seemed the obvious choice.  The small crescent moon details are done with two strokes of a 1″ gouge.  Easiest carving ever.

I was stuck on the last one for a long time.  It was to be painted dark gray to imitate lead, but I couldn’t come up with an appropriate image for it.  I toyed with one or two ideas, and then my wife suggested a set of scales, or balances, an image that occurs later in the play.

It was by far the most challenging of the carvings, partly because it had a lot more delicate edges to preserve, but also because I had to excavate so much of the background while trying to leave something like a smooth surface.  And yes, there’s a knot in the top, which is not recommended for carving, but I honed my V-tool and went slowly, and I think it came out okay.

I also added a running motif around the edge of the three caskets.  The lead casket got some scales all the way around.  It was a challenge doing something this small in soft pine, but seen from a distance it doesn’t look bad.

I was in such a hurry to finish the caskets that I forgot to sign any of them.  But when I delivered them, the recipients were delighted.  They painted the boxes and produced the play, which ran four performances just a few weeks ago.  When I went to pick them up today, I found that they had all signed the lead casket with their favorite quotes from the play.

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