“The Merchant of Venice” is a play written by the famous playwright William Shakespeare. It is currently believed to have been written between 1596 and 1599.
The earliest recorded performance of the play took place at the court of King James in 1605. The next recorded performance, however, was not until 1701, when the playwright George Granville adapted the play by adding several more scenes and changing the title to “The Jew of Venice.” This version of the play ran for forty years in England. It has since been adapted many times for stage, operas and television shows. It is considered on of Shakespeare’s most famous works.
The play tells the story of Antonio, a Venetian merchant who offers a crooked moneylender named Shylock a pound of flesh as collateral on loan for his friend Bassanio. When Antonio’s merchant ships sink, and he loses his money, the courts nearly rule that Shylock is allowed to take his pound of flesh, effectively killing Antonio legally. Instead, Bassanio’s new wife, Portia dresses as a legal clerk in order to fool the judge into ruling that Shylock is only allowed to take his due if he can spill no blood in the process. Shylock obviously cannot do this and the day is saved.
Act I, Scene I
In Venice, a merchant named Antonio complains to his two friends Salarino and Solanio that he feels a great sadness that he cannot justify. Salarino and Solanio wonder if his sadness may be related to the fear that some of the ships that he has sent out with his business will sink. Antonio assures them that this is not the source of his ennui, as he does not rely on any one ship to keep his business afloat. Solanio wonders if Antonio may be in love, but Antonio dismisses the idea.
The three friends bump into Antonio’s kinsman, Bassanio who is with two of his own friends, Lorenzo and Gratiano. Salarino and Solanio leave, and Gratiano asks Antonio why he seems so glum. Antonio tells him that he is a player on a stage and destined to play a sad part. Gratiano warns him against putting on a sad expression in order to seem intelligent, and he and Lorenzo leave.
After their departure, Bassanio teases Antonio more until the latter asks him about his own love life. Bassanio admits that he is in love with a woman named Portia who is an heiress from Belmont. He reminds Antonio that he already owes him money but that he was hoping to win Portia’s heart by pretending to be rich himself as all of her other suitors are.
Antonio tells Bassanio that his money is already tied up in his business and therefore he cannot lend him any more. However, he agrees to co-sign or “guarantee” any loan that Bassanio can manage to get.
Act I, Scene II
At Belmont, Portia is feeling glum as well. She complains to her lady-in-waiting Nerissa about her recently deceased father’s will stipulating that she is not allowed to choose her own husband. The will states that Portia’s suitors must choose one of three chests. One chest is made of gold, one of silver and one of lead. The only one contains her portrait, and whoever chooses that one wins her hand. Any man who guesses incorrectly has to vow to never marry anyone. This penalty has made it even harder to convince any of the men to even hazard a guess.
Portia has already had offers from many noblemen including a Prince, a Lord, and a Count. However, she sarcastically criticizes them all for their faults. The Prince, she says, was too in love with his horse, the Count was too serious, etc.
Portia thinks of Bassanio and considers him the only suitor worth her time. Portia is so bored of her various, wealthy suitors that when a servant enters to tell her that the Prince of Morocco is soon to arrive, she states: “..if he have the condition of a saint, and the complexion of a devil, I had rather he should shrive me than wive me.”
Act I, Scene III
In his quest to get a loan, Bassanio goes to see Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock is reluctant to give Bassanio the loan even after he is assured that Antonio is willing to guarantee it since all of Antonio’s money is tied up in his ships. Finally, Bassanio gets Shylock to agree as long as he gets to speak to Antonio personally.
In an aside, Shylock admits that he hates Antonio. He feels that since Antonio lends money without interest, it makes his usury business (the act of lending money at exorbitant interest rates) more difficult. When the men meet, Antonio makes it clear that he does not like Shylock either and admits that he is only willing to do business with him for Bassanio’s sake.
Shylock remembers times that Antonio had spit on him and cursed him for his Jewish faith as well. Antonio defends his Christian beliefs and says that he is likely to do it again. He insists that the money is lent as an enemy and not a friend. This arrangement will make it possible for Shylock to ensure a harsh penalty if the money is not repaid.
Finally, Shylock offers to give him the money without interest if Antonio is willing to let the penalty be a pound of his own flesh. He suggests this seemingly in jest but Antonio, confident that his ships will bring him wealth, agrees to the terms. Bassanio is suspicious of the deal but the agreement is signed, and the money is given.
Act II, Scene I
At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco arrives to woo Portia. The Prince asks Portia not to judge him immediately, as he is as valiant as any European man. Portia points out that her judgment doesn’t matter, as the Prince’s choice of the correct chest is the only thing that will judge if he is the husband for her. The Prince gives a speech about his own bravery and heroism and asks Portia to lead him to the chests. She reminds him of the penalty for guessing incorrectly, and he accepts this chance before she leads him away.
Act II, Scene II
A servant of Shylock called Launcelot Gobbo decides whether he should run away from his master. One-half of him is against Shylock’s faith and wants to leave. He calls Shylock “a kind of devil” for his Jewish faith. The other side wants him to stay to honor his contract. Launcelot’s father, Old Gobbo enters. Being blind, the man does not recognize his son and asks how to find Launcelot. Because of the mistake, Launcelot decides to play a prank on his father where he gives him confusing directions and insists that Launcelot is dead.
Launcelot soon reveals himself, but Old Gobbo does not believe him at first. After convincing his father of his identity, Launcelot tells him that he is leaving Shylock’s employ to ask for a job from Bassanio.
Bassanio enters at this and Launcelot begs him to take him on as a servant. After taking a moment to understand the man, Bassanio accepts. Bassanio then meets with Gratiano, who asks to go with him to Belmont. Bassanio agrees on the grounds that Gratiano acts properly and not his usual, wild self. Gratiano promises him that he will, and the men plan a night of revelry before they leave the next day.
Act II, Scene III
As Launcelot is leaving, he is bid goodbye by Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. She calls him a “merry devil” and says that his presence made the house bearable. She gives him a letter to give to Lorenzo and Launcelot leaves, teary-eyed.
Alone, Jessica admits that she feels guilty for being ashamed of her father but that she is only his daughter by blood and not by manners. She admits that she hopes to escape her father by marrying Lorenzo and becoming a Christian.
Act II, Scene IV
On a nearby street, Lorenzo, Gratiano, Salarino and Solanio discuss a plan to get Lorenzo and Jessica together. The crew plans to use disguises. Gratiano worries that they are not prepared enough, but Lorenzo assures him that they have plenty of time.
As they discuss this, Launcelot walks up to bring the letter to Lorenzo. Lorenzo, recognizing the handwriting, is immediately overcome with love and adoration for Jessica. He asks Launcelot to return to Shylock’s house to assure Jessica that he is coming for her. Launcelot, Salarino and Solanio leave, and Lorenzo tells Gratiano that he intends to have Jessica escape by dressing her as a torchbearer. He gives Gratiano the letter and entreats him to read it before leaving in excitement.
Act II, Scene V
Shylock scolds Launcelot and warns him that Bassanio will not be as gentle of a master as he was. He then calls for Jessica and tells her that he is going out for dinner. A strange premonition has been troubling him, and he warns his daughter to keep the doors locked and not go out to the street party in his absence.
Launcelot whispers that Jessica must disobey her father and be on the lookout for a Christian who “will be worth a Jewes eye.” Jessica bids her father goodbye and wonders how she will feel when she loses him, and he loses her.
Act II, Scene VI
Gratiano and Salarino meet in front of Shylock’s house that night. Lorenzo is later, and this confuses the men who think that lovers tend to be early. Gratiano says that love is best before it is confirmed and that once love is secure in his relationship, he will inevitably lose interest. Lorenzo arrives and apologizes for being later. He calls up to Jessica who comes out onto the balcony dressed as a page. She throws him a chest of gold and jewels and climbs down to him. Lorenzo and Jessica leave together. Antonio enters and says that Bassanio is leaving for Belmont and that Gratiano should come to bid him goodbye.
Act II, Scene VII
At Belmont, Portia takes the Prince to the chests. The golden chest is inscribed with the words, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
The chest of silver reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” And the lead chest reads, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
After considering it for some time, The Prince chooses the golden casket as he believes that it is the only metal capable of holding the portrait of such a beautiful woman. But when he opens the chest, a skull with a scroll are all that sit inside. The scroll turns out to be a chastising poem, and the Prince leaves quickly. Portia is only glad to see him go.
Act II, Scene VIII
Solanio is present to watch Shylock’s rage at discovering Jessica’s elopement and describes the scene to Salarino. He reports that Shylock shouted to the heavens for justice. Solanio mentions Antonio’s debt and Salarino remind him of the rumors that Antonio’s ships sank in the English Channel.
The two men think back to Antonio’s farewell words to Bassanio, where he told the man not to let thoughts of debt or danger stop him from courting Portia.
Act II, Scene IX
The Prince of Arragon arrives at Belmont to try to win Portia’s hand. This Prince selects the silver chest wherein he finds a portrait of a “blinking idiot” and a poem chastising him for being a fool. He departs, and a messenger arrives to tell Portia that a young Venetian has come to Belmont to try and win her hand. Portia hopes that it is Bassanio and she and Nerissa go to greet the suitor.
Act III, Scene I
While Salarino and Solanio are discussing the rumors that Antonio’s ships sank, Shylock approaches and accuses them of having a hand in Jessica’s escape. The two men claim the accusation proudly, and Salarino tells Shylock that there is more of a difference between him and his daughter than between jet and ivory.
Salarino asks Shylock if he can confirm the rumors about the sunken vessels and Shylock answers that Antonio will soon have to give up his bond of flesh. Salarino wonders what Shylock intends to do with a pound of flesh and Shylock replies that it will feed his revenge. Shylock tells the men that Antonio has treated him badly because he is a Jew and he intends to have his revenge by applying what he has been taught of Christian intolerance.
Salarino and Solanio leave, and a friend of Shylock’s named Tubal enters. Tubal tells Shylock that no sign has been found of Jessica and that, what’s worse, she seems to have traded a ring that was given to Shylock many years earlier by a woman named Leah, for a monkey.
Shylock is enraged and curses his daughter, but he perks up when Tubal confirms that Antonio’s ships have indeed sunk.
Act III, Scene II
At Belmont, Bassanio has arrived. Portia entreats him to leave off picking one of the chests for a few days so that they can spend some time together first, as he is likely to leave if he guesses wrong. But Bassanio wants to choose quickly so that he will not have to live another moment without Portia as his wife.
Bassanio carefully examines the chests and rejects the golden chest, saying that it’s ornamentation is deceitful. He rejects the silver chest next and finally picks the lead chest. Inside are Portia’s portrait and a poem congratulating him for choosing correctly. Portia is delighted, and the couple promises to love one another. Portia gives Bassanio a ring to wear always, saying that if he gets rid of it, this will signal that their love is gone forever.
Nerissa and Gratiano admit that they have fallen in love as well and a double wedding is suggested. Lorenzo and Jessica enter along with Salarino. Salarino gives Bassanio a letter from Antonio informing him that his ships are gone and that Shylock will want to collect his pound of flesh. The letter dampens Bassanio’s spirits. Portia offers to pay the debt herself, but Jessica tells her that Shylock is only interested in revenge. In the letter, Antonio asks to see Bassanio again before he dies and Portia urges Bassanio to go to him.
Act III, Scene III
Antonio is escorted to prison by Shylock, who remains deaf to his pleas for mercy. Shylock tells the jailer not to speak to Antonio. Antonio assumes that Shylock hates him for bailing out so many of his unfortunate debtors. Solanio assures Antonio that the Duke would never allow so ridiculous a contract to be upheld. But Antonio admits that Venice’s reputation as a trading city is on the line and throwing out such a contract could hurt the economy. Antonio only prays that Bassanio will arrive in time to see him before he dies.
Act III, Scene IV
Lorenzo assures Portia that she is doing a good thing for a deserving man in helping Antonio. Portia says that she has never regretted doing a good deed and that she could never deny helping someone that Bassanio loves. She says that she and Nerissa are going to wait for Bassanio’s return in a monastery and that she will wait in prayer and contemplation until her husband’s return. She leaves Lorenzo and Jessica to watch over her estate while she is gone.
After they leave, however, Portia informs Nerissa that they are going to follow Bassanio to Venice incognito. She promises to give Nerissa the full details on the trip.
Act III, Scene V
Launcelot tells Jessica that he is worried for her soul as the sins of the father are to be visited upon his children. Jessica insists that she is saved by converting for her marriage. Launcelot worries that the conversion of Jews, who do not eat pork, will have a bad effect on the price of bacon. Lorenzo enters and chastises Lorenzo for impregnating a black servant girl.
Launcelot gives a witty response, and Lorenzo sighs over the sarcasm. Launcelot leaves to prepare for dinner. Lorenzo asks Jessica what she thinks of Portia and Jessica admits that she is impressed by her and considers her nearly perfect. Lorenzo jokes about being as good of a spouse as Portia while leading her to dinner.
Act IV, Scene I
Antonio’s court date arrives. When the Duke greets Antonio, he expresses his pity and calls Shylock a monster. Antonio thanks to the Duke for trying to get around Shylock’s bargain lawfully and says that since nothing can be done, he will greet the inevitable with a quietness of spirit. Shylock is brought into the courtroom, and the Duke posits that Shylock is only trying to frighten Antonio and that no one would demand this penalty after a man has already been bankrupted as well. But Shylock insists that he is not backing down and that the city’s reputation is at stake.
Bassanio tries to argue with Shylock, but Antonio stops him, saying that there is no point. Antonio says that hatred comes naturally to Shylock. Bassanio offers Shylock twice as much as the original loan, but Shylock turns him down. The Duke says that he has sent for council from a lawyer and a messenger has arrived with the information. Salarino goes to fetch the messenger. Nerissa enters the courtroom disguised as a lawyer’s clerk and gives the Duke a letter from the lawyer. Shylock, expecting a favorable judgment, begins whetting his knife.
The letter mentions a young lawyer named Balthasar and orders Nerissa to admit the man into the court. The letter says that the man was sent in the stead of the other lawyer as he is ill. Disguised as Balthasar, Portia enters. She tells the Duke that she has reviewed the case and Shylock and Antonio are brought before her. Portia asks Antonio if he admits that he owes Shylock money. He says that he does. Portia calls upon Shylock to be merciful, but he asks why he should be. In one of the plays most famous speeches, Portia talks about mercy saying “The quality of mercy is not strained—it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”
After more questioning and another offer from Bassanio to pay the bond with interest, Portia judges that the decree should stand and that the bond is legal and bonding. She tells Antonio to prepare his breast for the knife.
In preparation for his death, Antonio bids his friends goodbye. Both Gratiano and Bassanio insist that, though they love their wives they would give them up to save Antonio’s life. In a sarcastic aside, Portia and Nerissa mutter that their wives are not likely to appreciate that sentiment. Just as Shylock is about to cut into Antonio, Portia reminds him that he must take the flesh without producing any blood, as the bond does not allow him any.
She informs Shylock that if a drop of blood is spilled than he will be arrested and his lands and goods will be seized.
Suddenly overturned, Shylock is unsure what to do. He tries to belatedly accept Bassanio’s offer of three times the debt, but Portia insists that he must have the pound of flesh. Defeated, Shylock drops the case. Portia reminds him what the penalty for threatening the life of a Venetian is. Half of his money would go to the state and the other half to the man that he threatened. Portia tells Shylock to beg the Duke for mercy. Showing mercy, the Duke demands a fine from Shylock and spares his life. Antonio offers to return his share of Shylock’s estate if he converts to Christianity and leaves his money to Jessica and Lorenzo after his death.
Shylock agrees and departs glumly. The Duke invites Portia to dinner but, still in disguise, she insists that she must leave for Padua immediately. The Duke insists that Antonio thank her for her help and Bassanio thanks her as well, offering her the money that he brought to pay off Shylock. Portia turns down the gift, but Bassanio insists that she take something. She asks for the ring that she gave him. Reluctant to part with it, he insists that he will get her a better ring. Portia insists, and Bassanio admits that he cannot give up a ring as his wife gave it to him. Portia says that this is a convenient excuse used by men to keep things that they do not want to lose. She leaves, and Antonio insists that Bassanio gives the clerk a ring. Relenting, Bassanio asks Gratiano to chase down the clerk and give over a ring.
Act IV, Scene II
Portia asks Nerissa to follow Shylock to make sure that he signs the will to leave his fortune to Lorenzo and Jessica. Gratiano enters and gives Portia a ring, inviting her to dinner again. Portia declines the invitation but accepts the ring. Portia then asks Gratiano to show Nerissa to Shylock’s house. Nerissa whispers that she will try to get Gratiano to part with his own ring. Portia is delighted by this as she plans to embarrass the men later with the rings.
Act V, Scene I
The final scene takes place at Belmont, a messenger arrives to tell Lorenzo and Jessica that Portia and Nerissa are returning from the monastery. When they return, Portia asks Lorenzo to not tell her husband that she was gone. Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano arrive, and Portia is introduced by Bassanio to Antonio. Antonio declares that he has been acquitted. Nerissa and Gratiano begin to argue over the ring. Gratiano tells her that he gave it to the lawyer as a fee. Portia insists that her own husband would never have parted with his ring. Gratiano informs her that Bassanio gave up his ring to the lawyer as well.
Portia declares that Bassanio’s heart is as empty as his finger and that she will not visit his bed until he can produce the ring. Bassanio begs Portia to understand the circumstances, but Portia insists that he probably gave a ring to another woman. Antonio tries to help, offering his soul if either Bassanio or Gratiano are ever unfaithful to their wives. Portia and Nerissa finally end the charade and show the rings, telling their husbands to be more careful with them.
Portia and Nerissa reveal their grand plan and how they posed as the lawyer’s clerks. Antonio receives news that some of his ships were recovered and Lorenzo discovers that he is set to inherit Shylock’s money. The whole group rejoices in their good fortune.
Portia – the main heroine of the novel. Portia is the wealthy, beautiful heiress that Bassanio is in love with. At the beginning of the play, Portia has recently lost her father and is unhappy with his will testament that specifies that she is only allowed to marry the man who correctly guesses which chest has her portrait out of three.
Rather than being a damsel in distress, however, Portia is in fact, the hero of the play who eventually manages to get Antonio out of his deadly deal with Shylock. Portia uses the law in her favor, playing by the rules to get what she wants. This is a callback to her strict adherence to the rules of her father’s will earlier in the play.
Though she does play by the rules, Portia is still a witty, sarcastic, fun character who flaunts convention by dressing as a man to get what she wants. She shows her fun side often and is, perhaps the best-developed character in the play.
Shylock – the villain of the play. Shylock is a moneylender who extorts his customers with high-interest rates. He offers Bassanio a loan to woo Portia only if Antonio is willing to offer up a pound of flesh to guarantee it. When Antonio’s ships sink, and the debt goes unpaid Shylock delights in the act of taking his due. Rather than offer Antonio mercy, he only gets more villainous as the play continues. By the climactic scene, he is positively slathering for Antonio’s flesh and gives speeches about his lack of mercy. He seems to be using the law as an excuse to take his revenge for helping his daughter escape his house by killing Antonio.
No analysis of Shylock’s character would be complete without acknowledging the offensiveness of the Jewish stereotype that he portrays, of course. Especially considering the play ends with him being forced to convert to Christianity.
Bassanio – Portia’s husband. Bassanio is a surprising and confounding character in all. He is intelligent enough, or perhaps emotionally adept enough to correctly guess the right chest and win Portia’s heart on the first try with seemingly no trouble. However, the main dilemma of the play is actually his fault. It is Bassanio who wishes to take a loan from Shylock, despite knowing his reputation to woo Portia. In his quest to appear wealthy for Portia, Bassanio nearly gets his friend killed. Although, he does have a great deal of guilt over the situation and attempts to pay off the debt himself, plus interest several times.
William Shakespeare Biography
Born the son of a glove maker and a rich landowner in 1564, William Shakespeare did not grow up in poverty. He attended good schools and learned all the basics a well rounded young man of means required. But, studying all the great play wrights led to the stage. He was one of eight children and the oldest surviving son, so turning to a career in the theater would not have been what was expected of a well brought up Englishmen, but, Shakespeare was a bit of a rebel.
At the age of 18, he suddenly married 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. Six months later they became parents of their first daughter, Susanna. Later they had twins, Judith and Hamnet, but young Hamnet died at the age of 11. Most scholars feel their marriage might not have been very happy. In his will, written days before his death, Shakespeare only left his wife his “second best bed.” Whether his marriage was ideal, or not, his career as a playwright, director, producer and actor of plays was auspicious.
By the age of 28, in 1592, Shakespeare had already advanced enough in his career to get billing at a London theater. Only two years later, 1594, his plays were only performed by “Lord Chamberlain’s Men,” a troupe on the rise in London. Until her death in 1603 Queen Elizabeth I was his patron. She was a great fan of his work, and although she never visited his theater, he and his troupe gave private performances for her at the palace. After her death her heir King James I became his patron, and the troupe’s name was then changed to “The King’s Men.”
“Lord Chamberlain’s Men” and later, “The King’s Men” were very popular and successful. In 1599 they built the Globe Theater by the River Thames (which was destroyed by fire in 1613 and rebuilt in 1614) and in 1608 went on to take over the ‘Blackfriars Theater.’ Both theaters were closed in 1642 due to the start of the English Civil War.
Although some scholars question the complete authenticity of Shakespeare’s plays, he is responsible for some of the greatest plays in history, including, but no where near limited to, “The Comedy of Errors”, “Richard III”, “The Taming of the Shrew”, “As You Like It”, “Romeo and Juliet”, and “Julius Caesar” (rumored to be based on a Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, translated by Sir Thomas North in 1579).
As an actor, Shakespeare often took to the stage to perform in his own plays. He is said to have played the ghost of Hamlet’s father and the part of Adam in “As You Like It.” In plays by Ben Johnson, he is also listed on the cast lists for “Every Man in His Humor” and “Sejanus His Fall,” among others.
The theater was Shakespeare’s life. He had a hand in every aspect of it, from designing the building to choosing props. Even during the years of frequent outbreaks of Bubonic Plague in London between 1603 and 1610, when the theaters were often closed, he kept writing and working. Then on the 23rd of April in 1603, purportedly after a drinking binge, the world lost one of the greatest playwrights of all time.
He was only 52 years old and had signed his will only a month prior. He was survived by two married daughters and a wife. Most of his estate was left to his oldest daughter, Susanna, with the stipulation that it be given to the ‘first son of her body.’ She had three children who all died without marrying, and his daughter, Judith one child who never had children, either. So, Shakespeare’s (legitimate) line ended. But, not his legacy.
To this day, the plays of Shakespeare have been and are being performed all over the world. His plays are one of the most unifying forces throughout history. Dictators, saints, scholars and dunces can almost all recite at least one line from his plays. Admirers tour his grave sight in Holy Trinity Church to read his epitaph or curse, depending on how it’s viewed, “Good Friend, For Jesus’ sake Forbear/ To dig the dust enclosed here./ Blessed be the man that spares these stones,/ And cursed be he that moves my bones”. When the restoration of the church was performed in 2008, his grave was not touched.