While we encourage your class to read The Merchant of Venice in its entirety, we understand that time is a constraint. These key plot points will help guide you to the most salient parts of the play.
Antonio Takes out a Dangerous Bond for Bassanio (Act 1): The play begins with Antonio, a Venetian merchant, wondering aloud why he is sad. Minor characters Salario and Solanio, also merchants, assume that his sadness comes from anxiety: Antonio’s ships are at sea and in danger of pirate attack, sinking, or stagnant winds. However, Antonio is not convinced. His friend Bassanio enters the scene talking about a new love that he has. He needs money to woo her, though, as her palace is far away. Ever accommodating, Antonio offers to loan Bassanio the money. But because Antonio’s ships are still at sea, he must find a money lender to give Bassanio the money on credit.
Antonio and Bassanio go to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock reveals that he hates Christians, especially Antonio, because Christians have been cruel to him. He agrees to give Antonio 3,000 ducats, but only under the condition that he may extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he cannot repay the bond in time. Foolhardy Antonio takes the bond. Readers also meet Portia, the woman of Bassanio’s desire, and her maid Nerissa. Portia’s father has died and left behind a massive estate. Through their conversation, we discover that Portia cannot marry whom she chooses. Her father established in his will that the winner of a contest of wits would win Portia’s hand.
Shylock Loses His Daughter (Act 2): Portia’s suitors must pick between three chests: one silver, one gold, and one lead. Portia encounters two suitors, one a prince from Morocco and another a prince from Arragon. Morocco chooses the gold casket and finds a skull inside bearing the cryptic message “all that glitters is not gold.” Arragon chooses the silver casket and finds a mirror inside. The message mocks him as a fool.
Meanwhile in Venice, Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian man. To Shylock’s rage, she takes Shylock’s money with her. The audience only hears about Shylock’s reaction through Salario and Solanio, who mockingly claim that Shylock was more concerned about losing his ducats than his daughter. There is also news that a ship has wrecked, and everyone fears that it is Antonio’s.
“Hath not a Jew eyes?” (Act 3): While Antonio’s friends are mocking Shylock over his losses, Shylock hears news of yet another wrecked ship. He sends authorities after Antonio so that he can collect his bond: a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Salario asks why Shylock even wants Antonio’s flesh, he delivers the very famous “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. Shylock makes an argument that he is human just like the Christians, and therefore he will follow their example of vengeance and mercilessness.
Meanwhile at Portia’s castle, Bassanio chooses the lead chest and finds a picture of Portia inside. She gives him a ring to symbolize their union. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, and Portia’s servant, Nerissa, becomes engaged to Gratiano. All of the couples experience what should be a happy ending. However, news reaches them that Antonio is about to die for the bond. Portia sends Bassanio and Gratiano with 6,000 ducats—twice the amount needed to pay back the bond. She and Nerissa claim they are going to a convent, but instead devise a plan to dress up like men and follow their husbands to Venice. Antonio longs to see Bassanio as he sits in prison.
The Trial (Act 4): Antonio...
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and Bassanio go before the Duke, hoping that he will force Shylock to be merciful. Shylock refuses to be merciful and declines the 6,000 ducats that Portia sent with Bassanio; he wants to claim his bond. Portia enters disguised as Balthazar, Antonio’s lawyer. She argues for Shylock to be merciful, but Shylock is not swayed. Finally, Portia tells Shylock that he can have his bond. Antonio prepares for death and Shylock brandishes his knife. But before Shylock can kill Antonio, Portia tells him that the bond guarantees him to flesh but does not account for blood. If Shylock sheds one drop of Antonio’s blood while securing his pound of flesh, the bond will be forfeit. Portia then recalls an ancient Venetian rule that states anyone who tries to kill a Venetian will be put to death and made bankrupt. The trial resolves with the Duke’s pardoning Shylock yet taking his money and forcing him to convert to Christianity.
Antonio and Bassanio thank Portia—thinking her to be Balthazar—and offer to pay her. However, she does not want Bassanio’s money. Instead, she wants the ring that his wife gave him that he promised to never take off. Though Bassanio initially protests, he eventually gives Portia the ring at Antonio’s behest.
The Happy Ending (Act 5): Portia and her servant Nerissa return to Portia’s palace and mock their husbands for giving up their wedding rings. They decide to play a trick on the men: they claim they will not sleep with their husbands until the men wear the rings again. When Bassanio swears his fidelity to Portia, she reveals the trick and returns his ring. She also reveals that Antonio’s ships have not wrecked and that Shylock’s money will go to Jessica and Lorenzo.