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Henry Irving as Shylock, 1901

The Merchant of Venice

Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): 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).

The Merchant of Venice Summary

Antonio, an antisemitic merchant, takes a loan from the Jew Shylock to help his friend to court Portia. Antonio can't repay the loan, and without mercy, Shylock demands a pound of his flesh. The heiress Portia, now the wife of Antonio's friend, dresses as a lawyer and saves Antonio. 

More detail: 3 minute read

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

Merchant of Venice set, 1858. A stepped bridge leads up to tall Venetian buildings with tall windows,  The canal under the bridge joins another at right angles which runs towards the rear under a series of bridges and between more tall buildings.
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. The will says 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. 

All that glisters is not gold

— Merchant of Venice, Act 2 Scene 7
The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company, 1997. Two men, one with a white beard and a skull-cap, the other middle-aged with a short beard and slightly wild hair, stand together looking to our right.
Royal Shakespeare Company, 1997

Act II

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. 

If you prick us, do we not bleed?

— Merchant of Venice, Act 3 Scene 1


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. 

Merchant of Venice in Hindi, 1888. On the cover a border of three straight lines with a deckled line outside. Has the title in English and then in Hindi.
Merchant of Venice in Hindi, 1888

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. 

Act IV

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. 

The Merchant of Venice Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008 A young-ish bearded man (Antonio?) looks at a younger, shorter man (Portia as a lawyer?) who is holding a sheet of paper which appears to carry bad news for the older man. Both are in modern dress.
Royal Shakespeare Company, 2008

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. 

Act V

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.

For additional reading, see our blogs on The Merchant of Venice

Find quotes on marriage from The Merchant of Venice and other Shakespeare Plays: Shakespeare Quotes on Marriage

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