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 women 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.