The Merchant of Venice follows the tale of a man who needed money to gain the favor of a woman, and to pass a test in order to gain her hand. While his friend financed this endeavor, he put his own life on the line which the woman saves while disguised as a man, using clever legal maneuvering and establishing her intellectual superiority over all of the men she fooled.
Bassanio wants to marry Portia of Belmont, but he needs money to woo her, so he asks his friend Antonio, a wealthy merchant. Antonio agrees to help his friend, but he won’t have any physical money available until his ship's return. He goes to a Jewish moneylender named Shylock for a loan, but Shylock resents Antonio for his anti-Semitic verbal abuse and his business practices. He agrees to lend the money to Antonio with one stipulation: if he does not pay it back by the agreed-upon date, he would recoup his losses with a pound of Antonio’s flesh. While Bassanio is hesitant at such an agreement, Antonio doesn’t see a problem, confident he will be able to repay Shylock in time. Bassanio and his friend Gratiano head for Belmont. When they arrive, they find that there are many suitors vying for Portia’s hand in marriage.
Bassanio discovers that Portia’s father left a test for her suitors. There are three caskets: one is made of gold, the next of silver, and the third of lead, each with an inscription. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket; the Prince of Arragon chooses the silver casket, which are both incorrect. Bassanio chooses the lead casket, which is the correct choice. Gratiano marries Portia’s servant Nerissa.
Meanwhile, Antonio’s ships are lost at sea so he cannot repay the debt to Shylock. Shylock brings Antonio and their contract to the court, where the Duke tries to reason with Shylock, but Shylock refuses to break the contract. Bassanio offers to pay the loan back for three times more, but Shylock still refuses. A lawyer named “Balthazar” arrives, who is actually Portia in disguise, along with her “law clerk”, who is actually Nerissa. Portia tries to convince Shylock to show mercy, but he refuses, so she tries another tactic: she advises him that while the contract stipulates a pound of flesh, it does not make provisions for blood. If Shylock can get the pound of flesh without spilling any of Antonio’s blood, then he can have it.
Shylock knows he is defeated, and Portia makes him agree to accept the original loan back, but then because he threatened to harm a Venetian citizen, Shylock, as an “alien”, forfeits his property and wealth to Venice and Antonio, his victim. The Duke agrees to give the government’s portion back to Shylock if he converts to Christianity; Antonio agrees to let Shylock have his wealth until his death. Antonio learns that his ships were just delayed, not destroyed.
Date Published: 1597
Major Themes: Racism; gender roles; revenge; mercy
Famous Quote: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”