Written sometime between 1596 and 1598, The Merchant of Venice is classified as both an early Shakespearean comedy (more specifically, as a "Christian comedy") and as one of the Bard's problem plays; it is a work in which good triumphs over evil, but serious themes are examined and some issues remain unresolved.
In Merchant, Shakespeare wove together two ancient folk tales, one involving a vengeful, greedy creditor trying to exact a pound of flesh, the other involving a marriage suitor's choice among three chests and thereby winning his (or her) mate. Shakespeare's treatment of the first standard plot scheme centers around the villain of Merchant, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who seeks a literal pound of flesh from his Christian opposite, the generous, faithful Antonio. Shakespeare's version of the chest-choosing device revolves around the play's Christian heroine Portia, who steers her lover Bassanio toward the correct humble casket and then successfully defends his bosom friend Antonio from Shylock's horrid legal suit.
In the modern, post-Holocaust readings of Merchant, the problem of anti-Semitism in the play has loomed large. A close reading of the text must acknowledge that Shylock is a stereotypical caricature of a cruel, money-obsessed medieval Jew, but it also suggests that Shakespeare's intentions in Merchant were not primarily anti-Semitic. Indeed, the dominant thematic complex in The Merchant of Venice is much more universal than specific religious or racial hatred; it spins around the polarity between the surface attractiveness of gold and the Christian qualities of mercy and compassion that lie beneath the flesh.
Summary of the Play
Bassanio, a Venetian nobleman with financial difficulties, wishes to compete for the hand of Portia, a wealthy heiress of Belmont, in order to restore his fortune. He asks his friend Antonio, a successful merchant of Venice, to loan him the money necessary to undertake such an attempt. Antonio agrees, but, as all of his assets are tied up at sea, he will have to use his credit in order to obtain the money for his friend. They go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender and enemy of Antonio’s. Shylock agrees to lend them 3000 ducats, but only if Antonio will sign a bond offering the usurer a pound of his flesh if the loan is not repaid in three months’ time. Despite Bassanio’s misgivings, Antonio assents to the arrangement.
Meanwhile, in Belmont, Portia laments to her serving woman, Nerissa, the terms of her late father’s will. They state that whoever seeks to marry Portia must solve the riddle of the three caskets—one gold, one silver, one lead, each with an inscription—or, failing in the attempt, agree to remain a bachelor for the rest of his days. Various suitors attempt the test and fail, until Bassanio arrives. Portia favors him and is delighted when he succeeds. His man, Gratiano, also proposes to Nerissa. She accepts.
But all is not well in Venice. Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio and Antonio, elopes with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. This enrages Shylock, who vows to show no mercy should Antonio be unable to repay the loan. Much to the usurer’s delight, Antonio’s ships become lost at sea, placing him in financial jeopardy. Shylock has him arrested and waits eagerly to make good on the bond.
After Bassanio succeeds at the challenge of the caskets, Jessica and Lorenzo arrive in Belmont seeking refuge. Bassanio simultaneously receives a letter from Antonio, revealing his predicament. Having no time to perform the wedding services, Bassanio and Gratiano depart for Venice, promising to return. Leaving Jessica and Lorenzo in charge of her household, Portia, accompanied by Nerissa, secretly leaves for Venice.
In court before the parties concerned, Shylock appeals to the Duke of Venice for the fulfillment of his bond. The Duke is reluctant, but sees no legal way to prevent Shylock’s claim. Portia and Nerissa, disguised as a doctor of law and his clerk, arrive to help decide the case. Portia initially rules in favor of Shylock; before he can begin to cut, however, she points out that he is not entitled to spill any of Antonio’s blood. She finds him guilty, furthermore, of attempting to take the life of a Venetian citizen. At the mercy of the court, Shylock loses half of his possessions and is forced to convert to Christianity. He leaves in defeat.
In payment for her services, the disguised Portia asks Bassanio for a ring she had given him in Belmont on the condition that he would never part with it. He refuses, and she storms off in pretended anger. Antonio, however, prevails upon his friend to send the ring after the doctor for “his” services to them; Bassanio sends Gratiano, who also gives up the ring Nerissa gave him, with the same stipulation, to the clerk.
Portia and Nerissa arrive in Belmont. Pretending they never left, the two woman demand to see the rings they gave their future husbands and feign outrage when they cannot produce them. Portia finally lets everyone off the hook and admits her and Nerissa’s roles in the events in Venice. She also gives Antonio a letter informing him that three of his ships have arrived safely in port, restoring his wealth. The group go to Portia’s house to celebrate.
Estimated Reading Time
As a rule, students should equip themselves with a well-annotated edition of the play, in order to smooth some of the friction between Elizabethan English and our own variety of the language. One hour per act is a rough guideline for the first read-through. This will vary, of course: Act V, which consists of only one scene, is obviously a great deal shorter than the rest; Acts II and III are longer than average. Certain scenes, such as Act IV, Scene 1, will command more attention than others, given their length and importance. Use your own discretion and realize that reading Shakespearean English—like encountering any rich and complicated variety of language—becomes easier the more one is exposed to it.
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
As is typical of William Shakespeare’s comedies, The Merchant of Venice contains three interrelated plots. The merchant of the play’s title, Antonio, has cast his fortune into several ships laden with goods he purchased abroad and now awaits the ships’ return to Venice with some apprehension. When his dear young friend Bassanio asks him for the loan of a large sum of money he can use to impress Portia, a lady of Belmont whom he wishes to court, Antonio can only refer him to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and offer himself as surety for the loan. Antonio and Shylock have been adversaries for some time; Antonio criticizes the Jew for charging usurious interest rates as he himself lends money without charging interest. Antonio’s antipathy for Shylock extends to mocking his way of life, and heaping insults on the Jew. Nonetheless, Shylock, who likewise expresses his hatred of Christians and their ways, agrees to the loan of three thousand ducats with the curious condition that if Antonio fails to satisfy the debt when due, he shall forfeit a pound of his flesh.
Bassanio, amply provided with funds sufficient to impress Portia, travels to Belmont in grand style. There, he passes a test involving three caskets that other would-be suitors, including a prince of Morocco and a prince of Aragon, have failed, when he chooses a casket made of lead instead of gold or silver. This victory wins him the Portia’s hand in marriage. His companion, Gratiano, likewise gains the hand of Portia’s lady-in-waiting, Nerissa. A third couple, Antonio’s friend Lorenzo and Shylock’s runaway daughter, Jessica, round out the marriages that Shakespeare’s comedies typically celebrate.
The problematic pairing of Lorenzo and Jessica, whose relationship forms the third thread in the multiplotted play, adds real injury to the insults heaped on Shylock and fuels his resolve to seek revenge on the Christians of Venice. The couple goes to Belmont from Venice at the same time that Salerio, another of Antonio’s friends, travels there, and they all arrive on the very day of Bassanio’s success. Salerio bears a letter from Antonio describing the ruin of his merchant fleet and the necessity...
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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,...
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Act and Scene Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis
Act I, Scene 1
Antonio: a merchant of Venice
Salerio and Solanio: friends to Bassanio and Antonio
Bassanio: a young gentleman of Venice, friend of Antonio
Lorenzo: friend of Bassanio and Antonio, loves Jessica
Gratiano: friend of Bassanio and Antonio
In Venice, Antonio is depressed, though he is uncertain why. Salerio and Solanio try to account for his sadness by suggesting he is worried about his merchant ships sailing in dangerous waters. Antonio denies this, but can suggest nothing in its place. Salerio and Solanio leave as Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano enter. Gratiano and Lorenzo jest with Antonio, lifting...
(The entire section is 1733 words.)
Act II, Scenes 1-9: Summary and Analysis
Act II, Scene 1
Morocco: an African prince, suitor to Portia
The Prince of Morocco arrives at Portia’s house in Belmont, seeking her hand in marriage. He asks Portia to disregard their racial difference and judge him instead by his personal merits. Portia reminds Morocco that the choice is not hers to make; he, like the other suitors, must face her father’s challenge of the three caskets. She assures him, however, that she regards him “as fair/ As any comer [she has] looked on yet/ For [her] affection” (lines 20-22). Morocco laments that, in spite of his valor, mere chance may deprive him of Portia. Portia refers him to the terms of her father’s will,...
(The entire section is 3065 words.)
Act III, Scenes 1-5: Summary and Analysis
Act III, Scene 1
Tubal: a Jewish friend of Shylock
In Venice, Salerio and Solanio discuss Antonio’s financial state. Salerio has received confirmation that one of Antonio’s merchant vessels was wrecked in the English channel. As the two lament this ill news, Shylock enters. He is bitter with both men for their knowledge of Jessica’s elopement before the fact, but they simply mock him in return. The conversation turns to Antonio, on whom Shylock is intent on wreaking his revenge according to the terms of the bond. Salerio asks Shylock what good a pound of Antonio’s flesh will do him, but Shylock dismisses this line of questioning as irrelevant. He is...
(The entire section is 2526 words.)
Act IV, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
Act IV, Scene 1
The Duke of Venice: highest authority in Venice
Bassanio and his attendants are back in Venice and wait with Antonio in the presence of the Duke to discover the fate of the merchant of Venice. Shylock enters the court, and the Duke makes a personal appeal to him to not only spare Antonio’s life but also, in light of the merchant’s recent losses at sea, to reduce the amount of the debt. But Shylock will have none of it, demanding that the bond be executed. When questioned on his motives, Shylock responds that he simply hates Antonio and is not obliged to have any particular justification. Bassanio offers Shylock twice the amount of Antonio’s...
(The entire section is 2092 words.)
Act V, Scene I: Summary and Analysis
Stephano: a messenger
Lorenzo and Jessica are in the garden in front of Portia’s house in Belmont, whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears. Stephano, a messenger, enters and announces that Portia will soon return. Launcelot Gobbo arrives and makes the same announcement with respect to Bassanio. Lorenzo dispatches Stephano to ready the household for Portia’s return. Lorenzo babbles for a time about the moon and music.
Portia and Nerissa enter and encounter the two mooning lovers, who welcome them home. Portia orders that no one in her household mention her and Nerissa’s absence. Bassanio, Antonio, Gratiano, and their followers arrive. Portia...
(The entire section is 781 words.)