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Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice: A Bayesian Puzzler

February 13, 2019

Further and deeper exploration of paradoxes and challenges of intuition and logic can be found in my recently published book, Probability, Choice and Reason.

In William Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’, potential suitors of young Portia are offered a choice of three caskets, one gold, one silver and one lead. Inside one of them is a miniature portrait of her. Portia knows it is in the lead casket.

Now, according to her father’s will, a suitor must choose the casket containing the portrait to win Portia’s hand in marriage. The first suitor, the Prince of Morocco, must choose from one of the three caskets. Each is engraved with a cryptic inscription. The gold casket reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The silver casket reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The lead casket reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath”. He chooses the gold casket, hoping to find “an angel in a golden bed.” Instead, he finds a skull and a scroll inserted into the skull’s “empty eye.” The message he reads on the scroll says, “All that glisters is not gold.” The Prince beats a hasty exit. “A gentle riddance”, says Portia. The next suitor is the Prince of Arragon. “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves”, he reads on the silver casket. “I’ll assume I deserve the very best”, he declares, and opens the casket. Inside he finds a picture of a fool with a sharp dismissive note which says “With one fool’s head I came to woo, But I go away with two.”

Now let us think about a plot twist where Portia must open one of the other caskets and give Arragon a chance to switch choice of caskets if he wishes. She is not allowed to indicate where the portrait is and in this case must open the gold casket (she knows it is in the lead casket so can’t open that) and show it is not in there. She now asks the Prince whether he wants to stick with his original choice of the silver casket or switch to the lead casket.

Let us imagine that he believes that Portia has no better idea than he has of which casket contains the prize. In that case, should he switch from his original choice of the silver casket to the lead casket? Well, since Portia had no knowledge of the location of the portrait, she might have inadvertently opened the casket containing the portrait, so she adds new information by opening the casket. But if he knows that she is aware of the location of the portrait, her decision to open the gold casket and not the lead casket has doubled the chance that the lead casket contains the portrait compared to his original choice, other things equal. This is because there was just a one third chance that his original choice (silver) was correct and a two thirds chance that one of the other choices (gold, lead) was correct. She is forced to eliminate the losing casket of the two (in this case, gold), so the two thirds chance converges on the lead casket.

So should he switch to the lead casket or stay with the silver? It depends whether things actually are equal. In particular, it depends on how valuable any information contained in the inscriptions is. If he has little faith in the inscriptions to arbitrate, he should definitely switch and improve his chance of winning fair Portia’s hand from 1/3 to 2/3. If he thinks, however, that he has unlocked the secret from the inscriptions, the decision is more difficult. If so, he might stick with his choice in good conscience.

In summary, the key to the problem is the new information Portia introduced by opening a casket which she knew did not contain the portrait. By acting on this new information, the Prince can potentially improve his chance of correctly predicting which casket will reveal the portrait from 1 in 3 to 2 in 3 – by switching boxes when given the chance. Unless he has other information which makes the opening probabilities different to 1/3 for each casket, such as those cryptic inscriptions. If this information is potentially valuable, or at least if the Prince thinks so, that complicates matters!

From → Probability, Puzzles

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