The Merchant of Venice Summary

The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare about a merchant named Antonio who gets into debt with a moneylender named Shylock.

  • Antonio borrows money from Shylock to give to his friend Bassanio, who is courting a wealthy woman named Portia.
  • With his trading ships reportedly wrecked, Antonio is unable to repay Shylock. Shylock demands a pound of his flesh for repayment, as stipulated in their contract.
  • The case is tried in court, where Portia, dressed as a lawyer, turns the case in Antonio's favor. Shylock must convert to Christianity, while Antonio is released and his wealth restored.

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Last Updated on December 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1606

The Merchant of Venice opens with three friends—Antonio, Salarino, and Solanio—as they speculate about why Antonio might be feeling sad. We learn that he is a merchant with several cargo ships at sea. Soon, they are joined by Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano, but most of them part, leaving only Bassanio and Antonio to speak, as the two are close friends.

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Antonio asks how Bassanio is fairing with his secret love, Portia, who lives in Belmont. Bassanio would like to visit her, but he does not have the money to do so. Currently, Portia has many suitors who are trying to marry her, and Bassanio would like to join them. Antonio does not have any money to offer Bassanio, because all of his assets are at sea, but he suggests that Bassanio take out a loan in Antonio’s name so that he may see his love again.

Meanwhile, in Belmont, we learn that Portia’s courtship process is quite complicated. Her late father created a test in which suitors must choose one of three chests: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The suitor to choose the correct chest wins her hand. Portia is tired of this test and equally tired of the men who have tried to win her. She remembers Bassanio fondly and wishes he could come to take the test.

Later, Bassanio approaches Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to ask for three thousand ducats in Antonio’s name. Shylock is initially hesitant to do this, because he and Antonio loathe each other. Antonio has made fun of him in the past for being a Jew, and Antonio offers loans without interest, which hurts Shylock’s business. Eventually, Shylock agrees to offer the loan with no interest over the course of three months. However, presenting it as a joke, Shylock adds a clause to their contract that allows him to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh should Antonio default on the loan.

Meanwhile in Belmont, one of Portia’s suitors, the Prince of Morocco, is about to attempt the test. She hopes that he does not guess correctly because she dislikes the color of his skin.

At the Shylock estate, Launcelot bemoans his having to work for the Jew. Launcelot feels that it is his responsibility to remain in Shylock’s employ, but he hates the man. After some deliberation, he decides he will work for Bassanio instead. With his father, Gobbo, whom he coincidentally meets in the street, Launcelot goes to Bassanio’s to ask for employment. Bassanio agrees, which delights Launcelot. Gratiano also appears and asks to accompany Bassanio to Belmont. Bassanio agrees to this as well, on the stipulation that Gratiano be on his best behavior.

Launcelot leaves to collect his things from Shylock’s house but meets Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, and is saddened that he will no longer see her, because he enjoyed working for her. She gives Launcelot a note to deliver to Lorenzo, and it is revealed that she is ashamed to be Shylock’s daughter. She plans to elope with Lorenzo and convert to Christianity.

In the letter that Launcelot delivers to Lorenzo, Jessica details how she wishes to escape. She plans to gather up as much money and jewels as she can from Shylock’s house, disguise herself as Lorenzo’s page, and run away with him. Lorenzo feels that this plan is perfect, as there is to be a masquerade party later in the evening, and she can serve as his torchbearer. That evening, they carry out their plan without any problems. Gratiano and Bassanio leave for Belmont.

In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco has chosen the golden chest, but this is not the correct choice. He pulls a scroll from the chest chastising him for being greedy. Another suitor, the Prince of Arragon, also takes the test and chooses the silver box, which contains a scroll that chastises him for being unwise.

Time passes, and reports of Antonio’s ships being wrecked begin reaching Venice. It appears that Antonio will have to default on his loan to Shylock. Antonio’s friends Salarino and Solanio are discussing these events when Shylock passes by. When they make fun of Shylock and accuse him of being unreasonable, he explains his many grievances against Antonio and claims he deserves the same treatment as any other human being, Jew or Christian. He is also entitled to revenge, which he plans to exact upon Antonio.

Meanwhile in Belmont, Bassanio has arrived and agreed to take the test for Portia’s hand. She asks him to wait, so that she may spend more time with him, because if he fails, she will never get the opportunity to see him again. He takes the test anyway, chooses the lead chest, which has a portrait of Portia within it, and thereby wins her hand. They confirm that they will be married, and it is revealed that Gratiano has also proposed to Portia’s handmaiden, Nerissa. They, too, have agreed to be married.

But before the two couples can celebrate, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salerio arrive with grave news. None of Antonio’s cargo ships have returned, and he has no money. He therefore cannot pay Shylock back, and Shylock is now attempting to follow through with the contract and collect a pound of flesh from Antonio. Portia offers whatever money they might need to repay the loan, and Bassanio and Gratiano hasten back to Venice in an attempt to stop the legal proceedings. Before they leave, Portia gives Bassanio a ring and makes him promise never to lose it; Nerissa does the same with Gratiano.

With Bassanio and Gratiano voyaging back to Venice, Portia hatches a plan. She has one of her servants go to the house of one of her acquaintances, a lawyer named Bellario, to collect clothes from him. She then explains to Nerissa that they will also be going to Venice but dressed as men, specifically a lawyer and a clerk. While Nerissa is confused about why they would do this, Portia says that they need to hurry and that she will explain her plan in detail along the way. She places Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of her house while she is away, and she tells them that she and Nerissa are going to spend time at the monastery while their husbands are away.

Back in Venice, Antonio’s trial begins. After hearing several appeals to accept some other sort of payment—even after Bassanio offers to triple the initial loan—Shylock insists that the only justice is in seeing the contract through. For this reason, he must collect the flesh from Antonio. The duke, who is overseeing the trial, states that he cannot make a decision without consulting a lawyer. His normal lawyer, Bellario, is unable to attend, but Bellario has sent another lawyer, Balthazar, to mediate. Balthazar is in fact Portia in disguise, and her clerk is Nerissa, also in disguise.

Portia attempts to convince Shylock to show mercy and accept a monetary payment, but he again refuses. She states that by law, they must see the contract through, and Antonio prepares himself for the knife. However, before Shylock begins collecting the pound of flesh, Portia notes that the contract stipulates a pound of flesh but does not mention anything about blood. Therefore, Shylock may collect the flesh, but should he spill a drop of blood in the process, he will violate the contract, and by Venetian law, he will then have his assets seized.

Shylock, realizing that he will be unable to prevent Antonio from bleeding, asks for money instead, but Portia uses his own words against him, stating that he must follow the contract. Shylock, realizing that it is impossible to do this, attempts to leave, but she then notes that Shylock, by devising this contract, has conspired to kill a Venetian citizen. Because of this, Shylock now owes half of his property to Antonio and half to the state. The duke shows mercy, asking only for a fine rather than half of his property. Antonio also shows mercy, stating that instead of half of Shylock’s assets, he wants Shylock to convert to Christianity and leave all of his possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica in his will. Defeated, Shylock agrees and leaves. As the court adjourns, Portia, still disguised as Balthazar, asks for Bassanio’s ring as payment. Though he is reluctant, he eventually gives it to her. The same exchange occurs offstage between Nerissa and Gratiano.

The final scene of the play occurs in Belmont. Jessica and Lorenzo stare at the moon and have Portia’s servants play music. Portia and Nerissa arrive, no longer disguised, pretending to have returned from the monastery. Shortly thereafter, Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano arrive. After introducing Antonio, Nerissa asks Gratiano what happened to his ring. He explains that he gave it to a legal clerk, and Portia also learns—or pretends to learn—that Bassanio gave his ring away. The women act upset and suggest that if they mean so little to their husbands, they may as well be unfaithful. Eventually, the women produce the rings and tell their husbands that they slept with the lawyers to get their rings back. Finally, they explain what actually happened and how they received the rings. As the play ends, Antonio tells Lorenzo and Jessica about the deal they struck with Shylock, and we learn that some of Antonio’s ships have returned with their cargo after all. All of them go inside to sleep, with Gratiano promising to take better care of the ring.

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