The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Plot Summary

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Summary

The Merchant of Venice is set largely in the wealthy city-state of Venice, a hub of Renaissance trade. Some scenes take place at the nearby estate of Belmont, where Portia lives.

Antonio is a prosperous merchant in Venice, but he has overextended his fortunes in his most recent venture, sending ships to several different ports. Thus, he is unable to lend his close friend Bassanio money when Bassanio asks him for a loan. Bassanio needs money to help him appear impressive when he goes to Belmont to court the beautiful heiress Portia. Bassanio has no credit of his own, but Antonio does not want to refuse his friend, so Antonio sends Bassanio to borrow the money from Shylock on Antonio's credit.

Shylock is a Jewish moneylender whose relationship with Antonio has been overwhelmingly negative. Antonio has insulted him in the streets and interfered with his business. He also knows Antonio's own fortunes are stretched thin, so Shylock is reluctant to lend him money. He finally agrees when Antonio offers a pound of his own flesh to secure the loan. With the money secured, Bassanio begins preparations to travel to Belmont, Portia's estate near Venice.

In Belmont Portia has her own problems. She is coping with an abundance of suitors she finds completely unacceptable. Her wealth and beauty have attracted dignitaries from all over the world, but they all seem deeply flawed. She fears she will be forced to marry one of them because her father, before he died, created a challenge to choose a suitor for her. He set up three caskets, or boxes: one gold, one silver, one lead. The man who chooses the casket with Portia's portrait inside gets her hand; Portia is understandably nervous about leaving her choice of husband up to what she considers a game of chance. Two suitors, one from Morocco and one from Arragon (part of Spain), try and fail in the challenge before Bassanio arrives. Portia knows and loves Bassanio, so she is relieved when he chooses correctly. They exchange rings, and Bassanio's companion Gratiano reveals he plans to marry Portia's waiting woman, Nerissa.

Meanwhile, in Venice, Shylock's daughter, Jessica, makes plans to escape from her overprotective father and marry Lorenzo, a Christian friend of Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio. After her only friend in her father's house, Launcelot Gobbo, leaves to work for Bassanio, Jessica disguises herself as a boy, takes her father's jewels, and sneaks out in the night to run away and marry Lorenzo. Shylock is anguished by the loss of his daughter and his jewels, especially the ring he gave Jessica's mother when they married. He is cheered when he learns Antonio's ships have been lost at sea and he may be able to exact revenge for Antonio's wrongs—and the wrongs he has suffered from all Christians, including the one who took Jessica—by collecting the pound of flesh promised in their contract.

Shylock and Antonio appear before the Duke of Venice for their case to be heard. Bassanio and Gratiano return to Venice, leaving their wives in Belmont, to support Antonio in his time of need. At the hearing Shylock first appears to have the upper hand because both men entered into the contract freely. Then a young lawyer named Balthazar comes to read the contract and save Antonio's life. Balthazar is actually Portia, disguised as a man, who has come to the court to help her new husband's friend. She makes an impassioned plea to Shylock to show mercy to Antonio, to be the better man. Shylock refuses, so Portia reads the contract carefully and declares Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh, but the contract does not allow Shylock to spill any of Antonio's blood. Should Shylock take Antonio's blood, which is not part of the contract, his own life will be forfeit. Since it is impossible to take a pound of flesh without spilling blood, Shylock's claim is void. Because Shylock's intention to take a pound of his flesh would have killed Antonio, the duke finds Shylock guilty of plotting to murder the merchant. He spares Shylock's life but takes his fortune, giving half to the state and half to Antonio. Antonio places his share in trust for Jessica and further demands that Shylock convert to Christianity.

After the trial, Bassanio and Antonio express their gratitude to Portia, still thinking she is Balthazar. As a test of Bassanio's loyalty, Portia asks for the ring she gave him as a reward for her service. Bassanio refuses at first, but Antonio convinces him to change his mind, so Portia now knows her husband will part with his wedding ring when Antonio asks him. Nerissa plays a similar trick and gets her ring from Gratiano.

Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio return to Belmont, where Jessica and Lorenzo have come to visit. Portia and Nerissa return as well, now appearing as themselves again. Portia tells Bassanio she got his ring from Balthazar after sleeping with him, and Nerissa tells Gratiano a similar story. Bassanio and Gratiano are outraged until Portia gives them a letter that reveals the truth. The happy couples retire to bed as the sun rises.

The Merchant of Venice Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction

Introduction

1 Bassanio borrows money so Antonio can court Portia.

Rising Action

2 Antonio offers Shylock a pound of flesh as collateral.

3 Suitors try to solve Portia's father's riddle to marry her.

4 Bassanio solves the riddle and marries Portia.

5 Antonio can't repay Shylock, who demands his pound of flesh.

6 Disguised as a man, Portia goes to Venice to help Antonio.

Climax

7 Portia saves Antonio at trial; Shylock loses his fortune.

Falling Action

8 Portia tricks Bassanio into giving her his wedding ring.

Resolution

9 Portia reveals her disguise and returns Bassanio's ring.

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