The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Summarize the plot, themes, and characters in The Merchant of Venice.

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A full answer to your question would take a whole book, so I strongly advise you to resort to the links below for further assistance.

The Merchant of Venice is, very simply put, a view of the strife between the Renaissance establishment and the "aliens" that lived in their midst. This is done by telling the story of Antonio, a Venetian merchant, who helps his dear friend Bassanio obtain a loan from Shylock, a Jewish money-lender. The guarantee that Shylock demands is a pound of flesh should the money not be paid back on time. The money cannot be paid, and Shylock demands his right to Antonio's pound of flesh. As he wants to cut it very near the heart, what he seems to be seeking is Antonio's death. Bassanio engages a lawyer, but his beloved Portia cross-dresses as a man, impersonates the lawyer, and presents her case so skillfully that, in the end, Shylock loses his case, his fortune, and even his religion, for he is forced to convert to Christianism.

You can find themes such as the following antithetic pairs: love-hate, charity-justice, and parents-children among others.

The most important symbol is, of course, the pound of flesh, whose meaning relates to practically all the rest. Others are Portia's three caskets and the ring that Shylock's daughter Leah stole when she eloped with her Christian lover.

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Bassanio, a nobleman with financial trouble, desires the hand of Portia, a wealthy heiress, in order to restore his fortune. He asks his friend Antonio, a successful merchant, to loan him money. 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. 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. Antonio agrees.

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.

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