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William Shakespeare: The Merchant of Venice
Summary by Michael McGoodwin, prepared 1999

William Shakespeare

Acknowledgement: This work has been summarized using The Complete Works of Shakespeare Updated Fourth Ed., Longman Addison-Wesley, ed. David Bevington, 1997.  Quotations are for the most part taken from that work, as are paraphrases of his commentary.   

Overall Impression: This is a generally enjoyable and moving play, with much satisfying language and characterizations despite its unpalatable depiction of the Jew Shylock.

Per Bevington: A love comedy in which major themes are friendship and love, and the need to give and hazard everything one has in order to win true love. It incorporates ideas of Renaissance Neoplatonism, depicting love as a chain or ladder from the basest carnality and moving up through perfect friendship and spiritual union to the supreme love of God for humanity. Presents two contrasting worlds, the pure serene fairy tale-like Belmont and the bustling world of Venice. Shylock is the Jewish villain, drawn from the archetypal Jew that eats Christian flesh at Passover, a usurer, willing to employ ruses and equivocation to win his goals, his God the Old Testament God of Wrath. It is unclear whether the play argues for tolerance and presents irreconcilable values, Jewish versus Christian. There is much blending and confusion in the language of commerce in unexpected places, using such words as "venture". The fourth act deals with the clash between Mercy and Justice.

Act I

Act I Scene 1

Venice street. Antonio, a wealthy merchant, wonders why he is sad, and his friends Salerio and Solanio suggest it is because he worries about his cargo-laden argosies at sea—but A. denies this is the reason [is it because he is losing his dear friend Bassanio to heterosexual love?] Gratiano, another friend arrives with Lorenzo and Antonio's devoted friend and follower, Bassiano [a scholar and soldier according to Nerissa]. Bassanio and especially Gratiano are light-hearted and try to cheer A. up, and Gratiano speaks of his love for Antonio. Bassiano confides in A. that his estate has been depleted by his lavish life style and notes that he is in debt, especially to A. B. imposes once again on their great friendship by asking for more money, in order to pursue the wealthy and lovely Portia, who lives in Belmont and has hair like golden fleece. A. is very willing to help but lacks cash pending the return of some of his ships, so asks B. to find someone who will lend the money with A.'s assurance.

Act I Scene 2

Belmont (on a mountain), Portia's house. Portia tells her waiting-gentlewoman Nerissa that she is weary and feels frustrated by the peculiar decree of her dead father, who was a holy man. He imposed the condition on her marriage that suitors must choose between three casks, of gold, silver, and lead, in order to win her hand, and swear off marrying if they lose. They review the unsuccessful suitors to date: the Neapolitan prince, the County Palatine, Monsieur Le Bon, Falconbridge, the Scottish lord, a young German, and finally Bassanio, about whom they think favorably. Her servingman tells her that the Prince of Morocco is also coming, and she indicates her dislike of marrying one with "the complexion of a devil".

Act I Scene 3

Venice, a public place. Bassanio asks from Shylock the Jew a loan of 3000 ducats for three months, backed by Antonio's wealth. Shylock comments on the riskiness of investing in ships at sea. Shylock agrees to do business with them, but refuses to dine with them, not wishing to be exposed to pork or to otherwise associate with them. Antonio arrives. In an aside, Shylock gives vent to his evil thoughts about A., saying he hates him "for he is a Christian", because he lends out money without interest (thus driving down the rates S. can charge), and because of the ancient hatred between Jews and Christians, as well as Antonio's past public denunciations of him in the marketplace. Shylock's Jewish friend/associate Tubal will provide some of the 3000 ducats. To justify his own unseemly business practices, Shylock cites the clever but devious techniques employed by Jacob against his father-in-law Laban which allowed him to preferentially build up his own flocks with spotted, streaked, or dark colored sheep and goats [Jacob had also deceived his father Isaac into blessing him over brother Esau]. Antonio questions that this example justifies usury, which S. likens to breeding. S. recounts to A. how A. has condemned him publicly in the Rialto, calling him a misbeliever and kicked him like a dog, and has spit upon his gaberdine and his beard. A. says he would do these things again, and that the loan should be as to an enemy. S. states his terms as if in jest: that if the repayment does not occur on the specified date, he will receive a pound of Antonio's flesh cut from wherever he wishes. A. regards this as a worthy offer and believes the Jew may be softening and will turn Christian.

Act II

Act II Scene 1

Belmont, Portia's. The Prince of Morocco, a Moor of dark complexion and noble warrior, tells Portia his blood (symbolizing courage and passion) is just as red as any northerner. She indicates her willingness to marry him if he wins, and would have been willing to consider doing so even if she were not compelled by her father's contest [thereby indicating her tolerance and acceptance of his skin color].

Act II Scene 2

Venice, street. Lancelot Gobbo, a clown and servant to Shylock, encounters his blind father Old Gobbo as he debates with himself leaving S. and hiring on with Bassiano—he describes S. as "the very devil incarnation" who has left him thin and starving. He asks his father to introduce him to Bassanio and to give him the present he intended for Shylock. Bassanio arrives with his servant Leonardo and others, and agrees to take on Lancelot (which Shylock has already suggested to him.) He is planning a feast that night for Antonio. Gratiano arrives and asks to accompany him to Belmont so that he may pursue Nerissa, and Bassiano agrees though cautioning him to not be so wild and liberal in his behavior and speech. Gratiano agrees, but they also agree he should be mirthful at the banquet tonight.

Act II Scene 3

Venice, Shylock's home. Jessica, Shylock's daughter, tells Lancelot she is sorry to see him go and that "our house is hell". She gives him a letter to deliver to Antonio. He wonders if her true father was actually a Christian. She vows to marry him and convert to Christianity.

Act II Scene 4

Venice, street, 4 PM. Lorenzo, Gratiano, and others plan their disguises for a surprise masque they will present that night during Bassiano's feast (that is later canceled). Lancelot gives Lorenzo Jessica's letter; Lorenzo asks him to assure her that he will not fail her. Lorenzo informs Gratiano of the lover's plan: they will steal her father's money and jewels and elope with herself disguised as a page and serving as the torchbearer in the masque.

Act II Scene 5

Venice, before Shylock's house. Lancelot is saying goodbye to Shylock, who regards him as lazy and a big eater and is glad to get rid of him. Shylock tells Jessica that he dines out that night "to feed upon the prodigal Christian" (apparently having accepted Bassiano's invitation after all?) and to keep the house securely locked. Lancelot informs Shylock that there is to be a masque that night, increasing his anxiety that something is a-brewing, and secretly lets Jessica know that Lorenzo will come that night. 

Act II Scene 6

Venice, before Shylock's house that night. The masquers including Gratiano and Salerio arrive and eventually Lorenzo joins them. Jessica appears above and after the lovers affirm their mutual love, she throws down a casket containing jewels, commenting that "love is blind" and expressing her feelings of guilt. Lorenzo and Jessica etc. head on for Bassiano's feast while Gratiano lingers behind and encounters Antonio. A. tells him "no masque tonight", that his friends await G. [either at the boat or the feast], and that Bassiano and G. will sail that night [for Belmont].

Act II Scene 7

Belmont, at Portia's. The Prince of Morocco debates the caskets and their inscriptions, finally choosing the gold one (which emphasizes self-gratification), wherein he learns he has lost (he wins a death's head or skull). He leaves, to Portia's relief— she says "let all of his complexion choose me so." [i.e., without success].

Act II Scene 8

Venice, street, a few days later. Salerio and Solanio discuss: (1) that Bassanio and Gratiano are under sail without Lorenzo to Belmont; (2) Shylock has discovered the escape of his daughter and complained to the Duke. Antonio has assured S. that Lorenzo was not on the ship to Belmont. Shylock cried "My daughter! O, my ducats... Fled with a Christian"; (3) Antonio's ships have foundered. 

Act II Scene 9

Belmont, Portia's. The Prince of Aragon has taken his oath to obey the terms of the contest. He opens the silver casket, learns he has lost (he wins a fool's head), and leaves. A messenger informs her that Gratiano has arrived to announce Bassanio's coming.


Act III Scene 1

Venice, street. Solanio and Salerio discuss further news of Antonio's shipwrecks. Shylock appears. They mock Shylock for losing his daughter and the differences between father and daughter. S. plans to take Antonio's flesh in revenge and laments "Hath not a Jew eyes..." Tubal arrives to tell him Jessica cannot be found, and S. wishes she were dead. S. rejoices to learn of Antonio's ill fortune. Tubal also says Jessica was seen spending Shylock's ducats wastefully in Genoa and traded his deceased wife Leah's ring for a monkey. He vows to have Antonio's heart if A. forfeits.

Act III Scene 2

Belmont, Portia's. Portia urges Bassiano to wait a while before making his choice, indicating her love for him, and debating helping him make the right choice (which would violate her oath). Bassanio however is intrepid, and wants to proceed immediately. Her song hints that love begins and dies in the eyes (and the final words of its initial lines rhyme with "lead") and he observes that "the world is still deceived with ornament." He declines gaudy gold and common silver and correctly selects the lead casket which contains her portrait (thereby choosing spiritual values over material). He claims her with a kiss and she gives him herself and all she owns, including a ring she places on his finger, extracting a pledge that he never give it away. Gratiano and Nerissa also announce they wish to wed. Gratiano proposes a wager of 1000 ducats on who has the first boy. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive with Salerio, the latter giving Bassanio a letter from Antonio. B. learns from it the loss of Antonio's entire fleet, his bond forfeit, Shylock's intent to demand his payment of flesh rather than accept cash payment, and Antonio's desire to see Bassanio. Portia suggests B. pay 20 times the principal amount (from her former funds) to satisfy the Jew. The men hastily leave, the women staying behind.

Act III Scene 3

Venice, street. Shylock demands the jailer arrest Antonio. Antonio knows the Duke will have to uphold the law and accepts arrest. He believes S. hates him because he has often saved Shylock's debtors from forfeiture.

Act III Scene 4

Belmont, Portia's. Lorenzo praises Portia's kindness and proposed generosity toward Antonio. She leaves her household in his and Jessica's safe keeping and ostensibly heads with Nerissa for a monastery until her husband returns. In private, she gives her man Balthasar a letter to her cousin Doctor [of law] Bellario in Padua requesting garments and notes. They plan to travel to Venice disguised as young men in order to test their new husbands.

Act III Scene 5

Belmont, outside Portia's. Lancelot discusses Jessica's sins with her. She has been saved by her husband, and has converted to Christianity. Lorenzo tells Lancelot that a moor or Negro servant is pregnant by him. Jessica praises Portia to Lorenzo.

Act IV

Act IV Scene 1

Venice, a court of justice. Antonio appears before the Duke, who expresses regret at the case he is forced to hear. Shylock arrives and the Duke tells him he expects him to be merciful. But S. will not have money instead of the flesh demanded, indicating the hatred he bears for Antonio. Antonio expresses the futility of trying to persuade the Jew to relent. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer to be paid 6000 ducats. Nerissa arrives dressed as a lawyers clerk and produces a letter of introduction from Doctor Bellario for a young and learned doctor of law who is coming. Gratiano accuses S. of being like a blood-thirsty animal. The young doctor Balthasar (Portia) arrives. After introductions, Balthasar/Portia calls for mercy in Shylock ("the quality of mercy is not strained...") but he refuses. Bassanio offers ten times over the original debt owed, and Balthasar/Portia suggests Shylock take three times the amount owed, but Shylock refuses. Balthasar/Portia calls for the knife to be prepared and A.'s bosom bared, and Shylock praises Balthasar's impartiality. Antonio bids farewell to Bassanio. B. would give his life, his wife and all he has to save Antonio, and Gratiano makes a similar offer. Balthasar/Portia then announces that Shylock must not spill one drop of Christian blood in gathering the flesh, on penalty of death and confiscation of his belongings. Shylock tries to take money instead but Balthasar denies any other settlement than the flesh. Shylock angrily gives up and tries to leave, but Balthasar informs him that by having intended to harm a Venetian citizen, half his wordily goods go to the victim and up to half to the state. The Duke pardons his life, which could have also been forfeit. A. accepts his half of Shylock's possession, and asks the Duke that the state not take the other half from Shylock, provided S. will gift via a deed his remaining wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica on his death and that he convert to Christianity. He agrees to these terms and leaves. Balthasar is praised and thanked, but refuses money, at last asking only for Bassiano's ring [as a test of her husband's constancy and love for her versus Antonio] which he refuses to give initially. A. urges him to give it.

Act IV Scene 2

Venice, street. Gratiano gives Bassanio's ring to Balthasar/Portia. Nerissa also plans to get Gratiano's ring.

Act V

Act V Scene 1

Belmont, outside Portia's, at night. Lorenzo and Jessica bathe in the romantic moonlight, commenting on legendary lovers, and enjoy the music. Stephano, a messenger arrives, saying the women are returning. Lancelot clowns with Lorenzo, then leaves. Lorenzo praises the moonlight and the music. Portia and Nerissa arrive and muse on the moon and music as well. They are welcomed and ask that their absences not be mentioned to their husbands. Bassiano and Gratiano arrive and the women playfully chastise them for giving away their rings. Portia gives the missing ring to Antonio to give to Bassanio, and Nerissa returns Gratiano's and tease them further. Portia then tells them of their roles as Balthasar and his clerk. Portia gives Antonio a letter stating that three of his argosies have returned to Venice and were not lost as originally thought. Nerissa gives the deed from Shylock to Lorenzo and Jessica. Gratiano wants Nerissa to come to bed in the few remaining hours of the night.