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Henry Irving as Shylock, 1901

The Merchant of Venice

Summary of William Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: Shylock asks for a pound of flesh as part of a loan contract (weird), Bassanio agrees to it (weirder), and Portia saves the day by cross-dressing and pretending to practice the law (perfectly normal).

Act I

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, but he sends Bassanio to borrow the money on the security of Antonio's expected shipments.

Merchant of Venice set, 1858
Merchant of Venice set, 1858

At Belmont, Portia and her maid, Nerissa, discuss the suitors who have come in response to Portia's father's strange will, which says that she may only marry a man who chooses the correct casket from three possible options . Each casket is made of gold, silver, and lead, respectively. Much to Portia's distress, all of 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, to ask for a loan. Shylock has held a grudge against Antonio for his own lending practices and apparent antisemitism, but nevertheless offers the loan with no interest. Instead, 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 (who wouldn't agree to that?) and Bassanio prepares to leave for Belmont with Graziano. 

All that glisters is not gold

— Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 7
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1997
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1997

Act II

Meanwhile, one of Shylock's servants, Launcelot, wishes to change masters and persuades Bassanio to employ him. As he prepares to leave his former employer, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, also longs to leave home to become a Christian and marry Lorenzo. Before he departs to serve his new master, Launcelot takes a letter to Lorenzo planning for Lorenzo and Jessica to elope that night. When Shylock goes out, Jessica escapes, taking with her gold and jewels. 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) wrongly chooses the golden casket, while another (the Prince of Aragon) selects silver with equal lack of success. As Aragon leaves, Bassanio is announced. Portia goes eagerly to greet him. 

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

— Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1


After a few days, Shylock hears that Jessica is squandering her stolen wealth in Genoa and 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. 

Merchant of Venice in Hindi, 1888
Merchant of Venice in Hindi, 1888


Back in Belmont, Bassanio chooses the lead casket, and in so doing, he wins the bride. At the same time, Graziano asks for 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 that he is now bankrupt. They are also told that he is under arrest, and Shylock insists on the fulfilment of his bond. Bassanio and Graziano leave in haste to help Antonio, while Portia and Nerissa resolve to follow afterwards, disguised as lawyers.

Act IV

In the court in Venice, Shylock demands his pound of flesh. The Duke, presiding over the court, has sought legal advice from the disguised Portia (now going by the name of Balthazar). Portia pleads for mercy, and Bassanio offers his wife's money, which would more than pay the debt, which Shylock emphatically 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; ergo, he cannot collect.

Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008

For threatening the life of a Venetian, Shylock's goods are forfeit to Antonio and Bassanio. Antonio refuses his share of compensation and asks for it to be put in trust for Lorenzo and Jessica. He also demands that Shylock becomes a Christian. Broken in submission, Shylock leaves the court. Bassanio and Graziano thank the lawyers, who ask for their rings as legal fees. The rings are denied until Antonio intervenes and makes them give them to the lawyers. 

Act V

Portia and Nerissa return home at night, undisguised, to find Lorenzo and Jessica enjoying the tranquility of Belmont. When their husbands arrive, Portia and Nerissa scold them for giving away their rings, assuming that 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 (huh, looks like we didn't need to go through all this mess in the first place!), and the play ends as the three couples prepare to celebrate their marriages.

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