Shylock is confined by the laws limiting Jews' participation in Venetian society and subject to prejudice and scorn. He bears a special grudge against Antonio because Antonio has mistreated him and interfered with his business in the past. When Antonio comes to borrow money from Shylock, Antonio accepts Shylock's demand that a pound of Antonio's own flesh be used as collateral. Shylock accepts the bond and lends the money. When Antonio's ships are lost, Shylock demands the letter of his bond be honored, and the case goes to court because taking a pound of Antonio's flesh is tantamount to murder. Shylock loses his case, and as punishment for seeking to kill Antonio he must forfeit his fortune and convert to Christianity.
Antonio is a Venetian merchant, the title character of the play, who borrows 3,000 ducats from his rival, the Jewish moneylender Shylock, on behalf of his friend Bassanio. Antonio's own money is tied up in his ships at sea, so he accepts Shylock's demand of a pound of Antonio's own flesh as collateral for the loan, reflecting his confidence that he will be able to repay Shylock. When Antonio's ships are temporarily lost, he can't repay the 3,000 ducats, and Shylock demands the pound of flesh. When the dispute goes to court, Antonio ultimately prevails. His life is spared, and his fortune is restored when the lost ships return to port.
Bassanio is Antonio's friend who needs money so he can court the wealthy heiress Portia, a woman famed for her wealth, wisdom, and beauty. Bassanio has squandered his own fortune and is in debt to Antonio and others, but Antonio cares deeply for Bassanio and does not refuse the request. Bassanio is successful in his courtship and marries Portia, but he returns to Venice shortly after they are wed to support Antonio in his time of need.
Portia is a wealthy heiress who lives at Belmont, an estate near Venice. Her father has died, and he devises a riddle involving three boxes of gold, silver, and lead to help her choose a worthy husband. The suitors must choose between the three boxes to find a portrait of Portia. The man who chooses correctly wins her hand. Portia is lucky enough to have the man she loves, Bassanio, win this challenge, and they get married. When she learns of Antonio's troubles in Venice, she disguises herself as a young man named Balthazar and presents herself at court as a legal scholar. Her reading of the contract and her cleverness allow her to help Antonio go free.
Gratiano is Bassanio's close friend who accompanies him to Portia's estate, Belmont, to offer moral support as Bassanio attempts to woo Portia. Gratiano shows great humor and fierce loyalty to Bassanio, a loyalty he also shows for Antonio during Antonio's trial. At Belmont Gratiano notices Portia's lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, and marries her.
As Portia's "waiting-gentlewoman," Nerissa is part servant, part adviser, part best friend. She advises and encourages Portia when Portia is frustrated by the suitors who swarm her home seeking her hand in marriage. She also disguises herself as a man and accompanies Portia to Venice when Portia goes there to defend Antonio. Nerissa is distinguished by her strong common sense and good judgment.
Jessica's father, Shylock, has protected and sheltered his only child throughout her life. He limits her contact with the outside world, and Jessica feels stifled and suffocated by his overprotection. Despite Shylock's efforts, Jessica meets and falls in love with Lorenzo, a Christian. Her father would forbid the match and punish her for even talking with Lorenzo, so she disguises herself, takes as much of her father's wealth as she can carry, and elopes with Lorenzo in the middle of the night. At the end of the play, the couple end up at Belmont with Portia, Bassanio, Nerissa, and Gratiano.