The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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What happens in The Merchant of Venice?

In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio has some financial troubles. His friend borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, but is imprisoned when he can't pay his debt. At the end of the play, that friend is released, and Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice summary key points:

  • Portia’s father’s will states that whoever wishes to marry her must solve a series of riddles or agree to remain a bachelor. Bassanio manages to solve them, much to Portia’s delight.

  • Antonio is unable to repay Shylock. Shylock locks him up and demands a pound of his flesh for repayment.

  • Antonio’s case is tried in court, where it is decided that Shylock cannot cut up Antonio. Shylock loses half his wealth and must convert to Christianity.

  • Portia and Nerissa testify against Shylock in his case while wearing disguises. Antonio is released and his wealth restored.

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Introduction

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.

Synopsis

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...

(The entire section is 998 words.)