The Merchant of Venice: Summary
The Merchant of Venice is a 16th-century play written by William Shakespeare in which a merchant in Venice named Antonio defaults on a large loan provided by a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. It is believed to have been written between 1596 and 1599.
- Antonio – a prominent merchant of Venice in a melancholic mood.
- Bassanio – Antonio’s close friend; suitor to Portia; later the husband of Portia
- Gratiano – friend of Antonio and Bassanio; in love with Nerissa; later the husband of Nerissa
- Lorenzo – friend of Antonio and Bassanio; in love with Jessica; later the husband of Jessica
- Portia – a rich heiress; later the wife of Bassanio
- Nerissa – Portia’s waiting maid – in love with Gratiano; later the wife of Gratiano; disguises herself as Portia’s clerk
- Balthazar – Portia’s servant
- Stephano – Portia’s servant
- Shylock – a miserly Jew; moneylender; father of Jessica
- Jessica – daughter of Shylock, later the wife of Lorenzo
- Tubal – a Jew; friend of Shylock
- Launcelot Gobbo – servant of Shylock; later a servant of Bassanio; son of Old Gobbo
- Old Gobbo – blind father of Launcelot
- Leonardo – servant to Bassanio
- Duke of Venice – authority who presides over the case of Shylock’s bond
- Prince of Morocco – suitor to Portia
- Prince of Arragon – suitor to Portia
- Salarino and Salanio (also known as Solanio) – friends of Antonio and Bassanio
- Salerio – a messenger from Venice; friend of Antonio, Bassanio and others
- Magnificoes of Venice, officers of the Court of Justice, gaolers, servants to Portia, and other attendants and Doctor Bellario, cousin of Portia
In Venice, a merchant named Antonio worries that his ships are overdue. As his colleagues offer comfort, his young friends—Bassanio, Graziano, and Lorenzo—arrive. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan, so that he can pursue the wealthy Portia, who lives in Belmont. Antonio cannot afford the loan. Instead, he sends Bassanio to borrow the money on the security of Antonio’s expected shipments.
At Belmont, Portia and her maid, Nerissa, discuss the suitors who have come in response to Portia’s father’s strange will. They will say Portia may only marry a man who chooses the correct casket made from three possible options: gold, silver, and lead. Much to Portia’s distress, all her suitors are unsatisfactory. However, she does fondly remember a time when Bassanio came to Belmont, and that leaves her with some hope.
Bassanio approaches Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, about the loan. Shylock holds a grudge against Antonio for his lending practices and apparent antisemitism. Still, he offers Bassanio the loan. Instead of charging interest, seemingly as a kind of joke, he asks for a pound of Antonio’s flesh if the loan isn’t repaid within three months. The bond is agreed to (who wouldn’t agree to that?) and Bassanio prepares to leave for Belmont with his friend Graziano.
Meanwhile, one of Shylock’s servants, Launcelot, wishes to change masters and persuades Bassanio to employ him. Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, also longs to leave home. She wants to become a Christian and marry Antonio’s friend Lorenzo. Before he departs to serve his new master, Launcelot takes a letter to Lorenzo that contains plans for Lorenzo and Jessica to elope that night. When Shylock goes out, Jessica escapes to elope, taking gold and jewels with her. The following day, Bassanio sets sail for Belmont, while Shylock rages over the loss of his daughter and the treasures she has stolen.
In Belmont, one of Portia’s suitors (the Prince of Morocco) chooses the golden casket, while another (the Prince of Aragon) selects silver. Both chose the wrong casket and are unsuccessful. As Aragon leaves, Bassanio is announced. Portia eagerly goes to greet him.
After a few days, Shylock hears that his daughter Jessica is squandering her stolen wealth in Genoa. He begins to rail bitterly against Christians. He reminds Antonio’s friends that if the loan is not repaid on time, he will insist on the original agreement of one pound of flesh.
Back in Belmont, Bassanio chooses the lead casket, and in so doing, he wins Portia. His friend Graziano asks for Portia’s maid Nerissa to be his wife. Portia gives her ring to Bassanio, making him promise never to give it to another. As Lorenzo and Jessica come to Belmont, news arrives that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea, and he is now bankrupt. They are also told Shylock insists on the fulfilment of his bond and has had Antonio arrested. Bassanio and Graziano leave in haste to help Antonio. Portia and Nerissa resolve to follow afterwards, disguised as lawyers.
In the court in Venice, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The Duke, presiding over the court, seeks legal advice from the lawyer “Balthazar,” who is Portia in disguise. Portia pleads for Shylock to have mercy on Antonio. Bassanio offers his wife’s money, which would more than pay the debt, but Shylock refuses to accept. Antonio’s death is only prevented as Balthazar explains the bond is for flesh but not for a single drop of blood. So, Shylock cannot collect the pound of flesh.
For threatening the life of a Venetian, Shylock forfeits his goods to Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio refuses his share of compensation and asks for it to be put in a trust for Lorenzo and Jessica. He also demands that Shylock becomes a Christian. Broken and in submission, Shylock leaves the court. Bassanio and Graziano thank the lawyers, who ask for their rings as legal fees. Bassanio and Graziano refuse until Antonio intervenes and makes them give the rings to the lawyers.
Undisguised, Portia and Nerissa return home at night to find Lorenzo and Jessica enjoying the tranquillity of Belmont. When their husbands arrive, Portia and Nerissa scold them for giving away their rings, pretending they had been given away to other women. Before long, they reveal themselves as the lawyers from the trial. Antonio receives news that his ships have returned safely after all (looks like we didn’t need to go through all this mess in the first place!). The play ends as the three couples prepare to celebrate their marriages.
Antonio, a Venetian merchant, complains to his friends of a melancholy that he cannot explain. His friend Bassanio is desperately in need of money to court Portia, a wealthy heiress who lives in the city of Belmont. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan in order to travel in style to Portia’s estate. Antonio agrees, but is unable to make the loan himself because his own money is all invested in a number of trade ships that are still at sea. Antonio suggests that Bassanio secure the loan from one of the city’s moneylenders and name Antonio as the loan’s guarantor. In Belmont, Portia expresses sadness over the terms of her father’s will, which stipulates that she must marry the man who correctly chooses one of three caskets. None of Portia’s current suitors are to her liking, and she and her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, fondly remember a visit paid some time before by Bassanio.
In Venice, Antonio and Bassanio approach Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan. Shylock nurses a long-standing grudge against Antonio, who has made a habit of berating Shylock and other Jews for their usury, the practice of loaning money at exorbitant rates of interest, and who undermines their business by offering interest-free loans. Although Antonio refuses to apologize for his behavior, Shylock acts agreeably and offers to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats with no interest. Shylock adds, however, that should the loan go unpaid, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s own flesh. Despite Bassanio’s warnings, Antonio agrees. In Shylock’s own household, his servant Launcelot decides to leave Shylock’s service to work for Bassanio, and Shylock’s daughter Jessica schemes to elope with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo. That night, the streets of Venice fill up with revelers, and Jessica escapes with Lorenzo by dressing as his page. After a night of celebration, Bassanio and his friend Gratiano leave for Belmont, where Bassanio intends to win Portia’s hand.
In Belmont, Portia welcomes the prince of Morocco, who has come in an attempt to choose the right casket to marry her. The prince studies the inscriptions on the three caskets and chooses the gold one, which proves to be an incorrect choice. In Venice, Shylock is furious to find that his daughter has run away, but rejoices in the fact that Antonio’s ships are rumored to have been wrecked and that he will soon be able to claim his debt. In Belmont, the prince of Arragon also visits Portia. He, too, studies the caskets carefully, but he picks the silver one, which is also incorrect. Bassanio arrives at Portia’s estate, and they declare their love for one another. Despite Portia’s request that he wait before choosing, Bassanio immediately picks the correct casket, which is made of lead. He and Portia rejoice, and Gratiano confesses that he has fallen in love with Nerissa. The couples decide on a double wedding. Portia gives Bassanio a ring as a token of love, and makes him swear that under no circumstances will he part with it. They are joined, unexpectedly, by Lorenzo and Jessica. The celebration, however, is cut short by the news that Antonio has indeed lost his ships, and that he has forfeited his bond to Shylock. Bassanio and Gratiano immediately travel to Venice to try and save Antonio’s life. After they leave, Portia tells Nerissa that they will go to Venice disguised as men.
Shylock ignores the many pleas to spare Antonio’s life, and a trial is called to decide the matter. The duke of Venice, who presides over the trial, announces that he has sent for a legal expert, who turns out to be Portia disguised as a young man of law. Portia asks Shylock to show mercy, but he remains inflexible and insists the pound of flesh is rightfully his. Bassanio offers Shylock twice the money due him, but Shylock insists on collecting the bond as it is written. Portia examines the contract and, finding it legally binding, declares that Shylock is entitled to the merchant’s flesh. Shylock ecstatically praises her wisdom, but as he is on the verge of collecting his due, Portia reminds him that he must do so without causing Antonio to bleed, as the contract does not entitle him to any blood. Trapped by this logic, Shylock hastily agrees to take Bassanio’s money instead, but Portia insists that Shylock take his bond as written, or nothing at all. Portia informs Shylock that he is guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen, which means he must turn over half of his property to the state and the other half to Antonio. The duke spares Shylock’s life and takes a fine instead of Shylock’s property. Antonio also forgoes his half of Shylock’s wealth on two conditions: first, Shylock must convert to Christianity, and second, he must will the entirety of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death. Shylock agrees and takes his leave.
Bassanio, who does not see-through Portia’s disguise, showers the young law clerk with thanks, and is eventually pressured into giving Portia the ring with which he promised never to part. Gratiano gives Nerissa, who is disguised as Portia’s clerk, his ring. The two women return to Belmont, where they find Lorenzo and Jessica declaring their love to each other under the moonlight. When Bassanio and Gratiano arrive the next day, their wives accuse them of faithlessly giving their rings to other women. Before the deception goes too far, however, Portia reveals that she was, in fact, the law clerk, and both she and Nerissa reconcile with their husbands. Lorenzo and Jessica are pleased to learn of their inheritance from Shylock, and the joyful news arrives that Antonio’s ships have in fact made it back safely. The group celebrates its good fortune.