The Merchant of Venice Summary

The play “Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare starts on one of the streets of aforementioned Venice. We see the main character, the young man named Antonio who is a local merchant. He is in a company of his friends and complains him of feeling blue without any obvious reasons. His friends ask if it is connected with his business - mostly, Antonio’s money is now turned to different merchandise that is sent abroad on different ships, so it is a decent chance for him to be left without a single coin. But Antonio denies that reason: the money isn’t bothering him, it is something else, more spiritual.

Another Antonio’s friend and a fellow merchant named Bassanio comes to him and also starts to complain. Unlike Antonio, this man has a solid reason to be sad: he has just returned from a secret voyage to his beloved named Portia. She lives in Belmont and she is an incredibly rich heiress. Bassanio can only hope to become the proper match for her status and marry her. Actually, both his trip and all his advances were financed by Antonio, who couldn’t refuse a friend and continued to borrow him money. Portia, according to Bassanio, is an ideal woman: smart, beautiful, kind and very, very rich. As each perfect woman she has lots of suitors around her, so Bassanio needs to hurry and get money from someone to make a proposal to Portia as soon as possible, until someone else steals her heart. Of course, that “someone” lending the money should be Antonio again. Antonio is ready to help his friend, but he just can’t - as we learned before, all his money is now abroad as different goods. Still, Bassanio isn’t going to give up: he suggests that Antonio can use his good reputation and borrow money from someone else. Bassanio isn’t just credible enough to get such a huge credit at once. Antonio agrees and the two friends part ways.

In the meantime, poor Portia is sieged by the countless suitors. The girl suffers, because her father decides to arrange her marriage, instead of letting her choose the one she loves. Portia’s father puts every suitor to a test of intuition that is rather unusual. He shows them the three caskets, one filled with pure gold, another one with silver and the third one with lead. The suitor that can pick up the right casket from the first try is considered a worthy one. Portia is very disappointed in the suitors she sees: they all are very rich, respected and important, but each of them has serious flaws that repel the girl outright. She decides to avoid marriage in general, as long as it is possible at all.

Bassanio searches the city, trying to borrow the money. The sum is huge - three thousand gold ducats. The only one who agrees to lend such amount is a Jewish moneylender, an old man named Shylock. Bassanio uses Antonio’s name to borrow the money, saying that his friend will repay everything with interest. But the trouble is that Antonio, as lots of Venetians of that time, is a radical anti-Semite and every time he sees Shylock he mocks him and offenses the old Jew, unknowingly endangering his friend’s plan. Hearing the name of Antonio, Shylock immediately comes up with a cunning plan. He says that he is ready to borrow the money even free of interest, but with a single condition. Antonio must sign a contract with him, saying that if he fails to repay the debt to Shylock in time, he will pay it with a pound of his own flesh. Despite the offer sounds absolutely horrible, Antonio is sure that at least some of his ventures will be extremely successful and he will have enough money until the due date. He gladly signs the contract.

The narrative shifts back to Belmont and learn much more about the strange game of caskets. Every suitor gives his word that if he fails, not only he does not try the second time or court Portia in any other way outside the game. The losers promise not to marry anyone until the end of their life. Still, Portia is too alluring for suitors not to try. We see them failing one by one and leaving, devastated. We also learn that Bassanio should be somewhere near with his friends, because he has set off for Belmont recently to try his luck and win the hand of beautiful Portia.

We again return to Venice and see that there is another poor woman’s soul in the play except Portia. In Shylock’s house, his daughter and the only child, a young woman named Jessica laments that her father’s care is smothering her. Shylock is too strict with her and turns her life in his house into the living hell. Jessica, a brave and rebellious person, now plans to elope with her beloved Venetian Lorenzo, get lost with him, convert to Christianity and live a happy family life. When Shylock goes out for a dinner and locks the house, Jessica starts her preparation. She steals some of her father’s money and runs away from home with Lorenzo, who already waits for her outside.

When Shylock returns from the dinner and realizes what happened, he cries and laments, running around and screaming: “My daughter! O my ducats!” (we see that he is worried about his only child and his money equally that indeed gives us some characterization for him). Antonio clearly rejoices: he doesn’t care about Jessica, but any troubles that happen to a Jew are good news for him. But Antonio’s joy isn’t for long: soon he is shocked to learn that Bassanio has run away too without telling him and now it is unknown what he is going to do to woo Portia. The following news is much, much worse: Antonio keeps receiving the letters about his ships sinking one by one. He really risks to be left not only without money but also without a decent piece of his body. Shylock, who also heard that news, comes to the stage. He is still enraged by what his daughter has done, but mocking Antonio, who soon will be cut, calms him down a bit. He tells the gossipers around that his joy and rage are rightful, because Antonio hates him not for something Shylock did to him, but just for being born Jewish. Shylock says a long speech, claiming that Jewish people are the same one as Christian people (with his famous line: “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”), sans one quality. The Jewish people usually not seek revenge and aren’t glad to have it unlike Christians. Shylock says that Christians taught him such a trait, to hate them for their cruelty and to wish them bad. Suddenly, Shylock receives a letter saying that his daughter is happily spending his money with Lorenzo. Mad at her again, Shylock immediately hires people to have Antonio jailed and executed.

We return to Belmont where Portia is still resisting the wave of suitors. But when she sees Bassanio, her determination to stay unmarried is shaken. Bassanio correctly points out the casket with lead (the other people were mostly searching for gold) and gets the right to propose to Portia. They marry that very day, but right before their marriage, Jessica and Lorenzo come to Bassanio, saying that his friend Antonio is in a big trouble: Shylock wants him dead. Right after the wedding, Portia sends Bassanio back to Venice to rescue his friend. She offers her own money to repay his debt and save his life and gives to Bassanio the sum that twenty times exceeds the sum of Antonio’s debt, hoping that Shylock loves money more than suffering of his enemy. Also, Portia gives her newlywed husband her ring and takes a promise that he will never ever take it off or give it away to anyone.

Portia, in the meantime, not believing that her husband will do everything right, asks her friend Nerissa (who has also recently married another young man named Graziano) to disguise as a man together with her and come to defend Antonio at his trial. They cross-dress together and Portia becomes Balthazar, a young and aspiring lawyer and Nerissa becomes “his” clerk. They come to Venetian court right in time: the trial is going to start. Everyone from the audience including the Judge try to persuade Shylock to step back, but the old man is adamant: he wants Antonio’s blood and a pound of flesh. Suddenly Balthazar enters the court and says that he is a skilled lawyer and is ready to defend Antonio in the court. Antonio has no other options than to agree.

Balthazar starts from reminding Shylock that by both Christian and Jewish laws mercy is the higher virtue than justice, so she asks him to have mercy on Antonio. But Shylock replies that he doesn’t possess such a high virtue as mercy, so he will be content with plain justice. He is in his own right: it is clearly Antonio’s sign on the contract paper and he signed it voluntarily. The Duke of Venice can’t argue with the paper and Shylock doesn’t want to compromise either. Antonio, tired of it all, says that he doesn’t care if he dies after paying his debt in flesh. Bassanio panics and laments that he is ready to trade his wife, who is the reason of him borrowing the money, back for Antonio’s life. Portia is less than amused to hear this, but as Balthazar she has to keep silent.

The case is clearly lost. Portia as Balthazar prepares Antonio for paying his horrible debt, but when she sees that Shylock takes the knife with his own hand, a brilliant idea comes to her mind and Balthazar makes a great speech, saying that Antonio indeed owes a pound of flesh to Shylock, but Shylock can’t take it because, as a Jew, he can’t spill even a drop of Christian blood. Otherwise he will be accused of plotting to murder a Christian Venetian citizen that is a major crime and will cost him his life and everything he possesses. Shylock wasn’t prepared for that and he steps back saying that he is fine with the amount of money three times more than he lent to Antonio. Balthazar continues to press, accusing him of plotting murder, and Shylock lowers the stakes back to the three hundred ducats that were the original sum. But now he is the one who needs defence: Balthazar is indeed a skilled lawyer. For the conspiration to kill a Venetian citizen he now owes all his money to the city, and probably, after that his life would be spared. The Duke lets Antonio decide the fate of his enemy. Antonio lets Shylock have his possessions back, but with one condition: he signs a paper, bequeathing everything to his daughter Jessica and her husband after his death. Also, Shylock has to convert to Christianity to save his life. Broken, Shylock signs the paper and leaves the court, totally devastated.

Now it’s time for Portia and Nerissa to run back home until their husbands return and realize that their wives are absent. But just before Portia leaves, Antonio and Bassanio catch “Baltazar”, praising him for such a brilliant defence and asking him to take presents from them. Balthazar tries to refuse, but both men insist so hard that Portia has to agree. She quickly composes a plan of punishing her husband for the words about trading her like a slave. Balthazar demands the only present: the ring from Bassanio’s finger. Bassanio hesitates: he remembers that Portia gave it to him as a symbol of marital fidelity, but Antonio insists that nothing can be worth more than his life and with a heavy heart Bassanio gives away his ring to the lawyer.

The men come back home to Belmont and are greeted by their wives. Nerissa starts arguing with Graziano and the argument turns into a fight. It turns out that she has also given him a ring with the same meaning and, seeing Portia’s plan, also decided to test her husband, asking the ring as a present for helping during the trial. Then it’s Portia’s time to ask Bassanio where is her ring. Bassanio mumbles something about the court and the lawyer and Portia unleashes her rage, pledging to sleep in bed with Balthazar if he is now the one whom her fidelity, represented by the ring, belongs to (it’s quite easy for her to fulfill the promise, but we can only imagine the feelings of poor Bassanio).

Antonio, who has also come with the rest to visit Balmont and witnessed both arguments, interrupts, offering his own immortal soul as a guarantee that Bassanio was, is and will be faithful to his wife. Portia warms up and agrees to take Antonio’s soul as a guarantee. She gives him the ring, asking him to give it back to Bassanio. Shocked Antonio realizes that the ring is exactly the same. Portia explains that she and Nerissa saved his life during the trial, disguised as a young lawyer and his clerk. The trick with the ring was only a petty revenge on Bassanio saying such offensive words about her. Also, Portia gives Antonio a letter for him - finally with good news: the rest of his ships made it home and he is rich again.