The opening scene establishes the play’s dominant theme--the Renaissance concept of friendship, which takes precedence even over romantic love. Antonio, a merchant of Venice, loans his bankrupt friend Bassanio money to woo Portia, the heiress of Belmont. To get the money, Antonio himself has to borrow it from Shylock, a usurious Jew who hates him and makes the collateral a pound of Antonio’s flesh.
A dark figure of contrast, Shylock puts money above human values. He is so grasping and hardhearted that first his servant leaves him, then his daughter, Jessica. Jessica runs off with a Christian, taking jewels and ducats. Shylock is equally hysterical about losing Jessica and the ducats.
Bassanio journeys to Belmont and, by passing a shrewd test designed by Portia’s dead father, wins Portia’s hand: From gold, silver, and lead caskets, he chooses the one containing her portrait. Meanwhile, however, Antonio is forced to default on the loan, and Shylock demands his pound of flesh.
In a climactic court scene, Portia, disguised as a young judge, settles the case. Her learned decision, satisfying Shylock’s call for strict justice, frees Antonio and condemns Shylock, but the court shows mercy by mitigating Shylock’s harsh penalty and forcing him to become a Christian.
Even though Shylock seems to bring his troubles on himself, modern audiences have tended to see the treatment of Shylock not as a demonstration of Christian virtue but as hypocrisy and anti-Semitism. Similarly, they have tended to see Shylock as a character who began as a stereotype, captured the author’s sympathies, and almost stole the show.
Bulman, James. Shakespeare in Performance: The Merchant of Venice. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992. Provides a survey of nineteenth century productions and a critique of several major twentieth century productions, including a comparison of Jonathan Miller’s stage version (featuring Laurence Olivier as Shylock) with the BBC-TV version he produced ten years later.
Danson, Lawrence. The Harmonies of “The Merchant of Venice.” New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978. An excellent full-length study of the play that treats everything from “The Problem of Shylock” to law and language, miracle and myth, love and friendship, and the “quality of mercy.”
Gross, John. Shylock: Four Hundred Years in the Life of a Legend. London: Chatto & Windus, 1992. Gross traces Shylock’s role and that of the play’s in the history of anti-Semitism in the Western world. Also discusses the stage history of The Merchant of Venice, including several adaptations.
Levin, Richard A. Love and Society in Shakespearean Comedy. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1985. Levin devotes one chapter to The Merchant of Venice and focuses on one of the play’s central problems: the ambiguity of Shylock’s conflicting motives in Act I, scene iii: The bond proposed may have been “a vicious and deceptive offer” or it may have been an incentive for better treatment from Antonio and others.
Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981. In a superb essay on The Merchant of Venice, Rabkin notes the many significant inconsistencies and contradictions in the play and shows the impossibility of imposing easy, reductivist interpretation on it.