Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice focuses on two major points: Bassanio and Portia's courtship, and Shylock's conflict with the merchant Antonio. The play begins with Antonio agreeing to fund Bassanio's attempt to win Portia's love. To do so, Antonio borrows money from the Jewish moneylender Shylock and agrees to forfeit a pound of flesh if he fails to pay back the loan. Meanwhile, we learn that Portia, a fabulously rich heiress in Belmont, is beset by suitors, all of whom are asked to successfully circumvent a complicated riddle involving several caskets. No suitor successfully solves the riddle until Bassanio comes onto the scene, solves the riddle, and wins Portia's love.
In the meantime, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, runs away with her lover, Lorenzo, and Antonio's ships fail to return successfully with their cargo, rendering Antonio unable to pay back his loan. This leads Shylock to seek revenge, and he demands Antonio's pound of flesh. The climax of the play is a long scene at court, at which point Shylock nearly forces the Duke of Venice to give him a pound of Antonio's flesh. However, Portia saves the day by disguising herself as a lawyer and arguing against Shylock in court. In the end, Shylock is forced to give up his claim to Antonio's flesh and convert to Christianity. The play ends with a jubilant celebration in Belmont.
The Merchant of Venice is a tough play to categorize. On the one hand, it employs many comedic elements. On the other hand, there are some nearly tragic elements, especially in Shylock's character, who is presented as the villain but who is also clearly oppressed by Venetian society. Often, it's called a "problem play," and some issues, especially Shylock's status after the trial, seem to remain up in the air. For a more detailed summary, check out the eNotes summary by following the link below.