Bassanio, meeting his wealthy friend Antonio, reveals that he has a plan for restoring the fortune he carelessly spent and for paying the debts he incurred. In the town of Belmont, not far from Venice, there lives a wealthy young woman named Portia, who is famous for her beauty. If he can secure some money, Bassanio declares, he is sure he can win her as his wife. Antonio replies that he has no funds at hand with which to supply his friend, as they are all invested in the ships he has at sea, but that he will attempt to borrow money for him in Venice.
Portia has many suitors for her hand. According to the strange conditions of her father’s will, however, anyone who wishes her for his wife has to choose correctly among three caskets of silver, gold, and lead the casket that contains the message that Portia is his. In case of failure, the suitors are compelled to swear never to reveal which casket they chose and never to woo another woman. Four of her suitors, seeing they cannot win her except under the conditions of the will, depart. A fifth, a Moor, decides to take his chances. The unfortunate man chooses the golden casket, which contains a skull and a mocking message. The prince of Arragon is the next suitor to try his luck. He chooses the silver casket, only to learn from the note it holds that he is a fool.
True to his promise to Bassanio, Antonio arranges to borrow three thousand ducats from Shylock, a wealthy Jew. Antonio is to have the use of the money for three months. If he finds himself unable to return the loan at the end of that time, Shylock is given the right to cut a pound of flesh from any part of Antonio’s body. Despite Bassanio’s objections, Antonio insists on accepting the terms, for he is sure his ships will return a month before the payment is due. He is confident that he will never fall into the power of the Jew, who hates Antonio because he often lends money to others without charging the interest Shylock demands.
That night, Bassanio plans a feast and a masque. In conspiracy with his friend, Lorenzo, he invites Shylock to be his guest. Lorenzo, taking advantage of her father’s absence, runs off with the Jew’s daughter, Jessica, who takes part of Shylock’s fortune with her. Shylock is cheated not only of his daughter and his ducats but also of his entertainment, for the wind suddenly changes and Bassanio sets sail for Belmont.
As the days pass, the Jew begins to hear news of mingled good and bad fortune. In Genoa, Jessica and Lorenzo are lavishly spending the money she took with her. The miser flinches at the reports of his daughter’s extravagance, but for compensation he has the news that Antonio’s ships, on which his continuing fortune depends, were wrecked at sea.
Portia, much taken with Bassanio when he comes to woo her, will have him wait before he tries to pick the right casket. Sure that he will fail as the others did, she hopes to have his company a little while longer. Bassanio, however, is impatient to try his luck. Not deceived by the ornateness of the gold and silver caskets, and philosophizing that true virtue is inward virtue, he chooses the lead box. In it is a portrait of Portia. He chose correctly. To seal their engagement, Portia gives Bassanio a ring. She declares he must never part with it, for if he does, it will signify the end of their love.
Gratiano, a friend who accompanied Bassanio to Belmont, speaks up. He is in love with Portia’s waiting-woman, Nerissa. With Portia’s delighted approval, Gratiano plans that both couples should be married at the same time.
Bassanio’s joy at his good fortune is soon blighted. Antonio writes that he is ruined, all his ships failing to return. The time for payment of the loan past due, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. In closing, Antonio declares that he clears Bassanio of his debt to him. He wishes only to see his friend once more before his death. Portia declares that the double wedding should take place at once. Then her husband will be able to set out for Venice in an attempt to buy off the Jew with her dowry of six thousand ducats.
After Bassanio and Gratiano depart, Portia declares to Lorenzo and Jessica, who had come to Belmont, that she and Nerissa are going to a nunnery, where they will live in seclusion until their husbands return. She commits the charge of her house and servants to Jessica and Lorenzo.
Instead of taking the course she described, however, Portia sets about executing other plans. She gives her servant, Balthasar, orders to take a note to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, a famous lawyer of Padua, in order to secure a message and some clothes from him. She explains to Nerissa that they will go to Venice disguised as men.
The duke of Venice, before whom Antonio’s case is tried, is reluctant to exact the penalty in Shylock’s contract. When his appeals to the Jew’s better feelings go unheeded, he can see no course before him but to allow the moneylender his due. Bassanio tries to make Shylock relent by offering him the six thousand ducats, but, like the duke, he meets only a firm refusal.
Portia, dressed as a lawyer, and Nerissa, disguised as her clerk, appear in the court. Nerissa offers the duke a letter from Doctor Bellario, in which the doctor explains that he is very ill, but that Balthasar, his young representative, will present his opinion in the dispute.
When Portia appeals to the Jew’s mercy, Shylock merely demands the penalty. Portia then declares that the Jew, under the letter of the contract, cannot be offered money in exchange for Antonio’s release. The only alternative is for the merchant to forfeit his flesh.
Antonio prepares his bosom for the knife, for Shylock is determined to take his portion as close to his enemy’s heart as he can cut. Before the operation can begin, however, Portia, examining the contract, declares that it contains no clause stating that Shylock can have any blood with the flesh. The Jew, realizing that he is defeated, offers at once to accept the six thousand ducats, but Portia declares that he is not entitled to the money he already refused. She states also that Shylock, an alien, threatened the life of a Venetian citizen. For that crime Antonio has the right to seize half of his property and the state the remainder.
Antonio refuses that penalty, but it is agreed that one-half of Shylock’s fortune should go at once to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock is to keep the remainder, but it is to be willed to the couple after his death. In addition, Shylock is to undergo conversion. The defeated man has no choice but to agree to the terms.
Pressed to accept a reward, Portia takes only a pair of Antonio’s gloves and the ring that she herself gave Bassanio. Nerissa, likewise, manages to secure Gratiano’s ring. Then Portia and Nerissa start back for Belmont, to be there when their husbands return. They arrive home shortly before Bassanio and Gratiano appear in company with Antonio. Pretending to discover that their husbands’ rings are missing, Portia and Nerissa at first accuse Bassanio and Gratiano of unfaithfulness. At last, to the surprise of all, they reveal their secret, which is vouched for by a letter from Doctor Bellario. For Jessica and Lorenzo, they have the good news of their future inheritance, and for Antonio a letter, secured by chance, announcing that some of his ships arrived safely in port after all.