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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