The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)

The Merchant of Venice
by William Shakespeare
(1564 - 1616)

Type of Work:

Comedic drama


Renaissance Venice and Belmont

Principal Characters

Antonio, the merchant

Bassanio, his young friend, in love with


Portia, a beautiful and wealthy young

Shylock, a rich Jew

Jessica, Shylock's lovely daughter

Story Overveiw

Whenever Bassanio needed money he would
go to his older friend Antonio, a wealthy Venetian merchant. Now Bassanio
needed a sizable loan for a certain "enterprise." When questioned concerning
this enterprise, Bassanio admitted he had fallen in love with Portia, a
wealthy and famous lady. Unless Bassanio had money, he could never hope
to compete with the myriad of rich noblemen and princes who vied for Portia's
favor. Antonio would have gladly supplied his friend with the money, but
he had no cash on hand; all of his capital was tied up in ships, not due
to return from foreign ports for several weeks.

So Antonio and Bassanio found their way
to Shylock, a rich Jewish moneylender who had made his fortune by charging
exorbitant interest rates. Though they despised Shylock, the two managed
to swallow their pride long enough to petition him to loan them three thousand
ducats, to be paid back as soon as Antonio's ships returned to port. Shylock
bitterly rebuked them for having the temerity to come crawling to him for
a loan after publicly disdaining him:

You call me a misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gabardine ...

Well then, it now appears you need help

What shouId I say to you? Should I not
say: ...

"Fair sir, you spat on me on Wednesday

You spurned me such and such day, another

You call'd me dog, and for these courtesies

I'll lend you thus much moneys?"

Finally, though, glowing and rubbing hi,
hands together as if he would "get to the bone" of his petitioners, Shylock
agreed to lend the money, but on this condition: if the full sum were not
repaid within three months, he could lawfully cut one pound of flesh from

Antonio's body.

Bassanio was shocked at the proposal, but

Antonio assured him there was no need to worry; his ships were expected
home a full month before the debt would come due. Reluctantly, Bassanio
accepted the terms of the loan.

Meanwhile, the lovely Portia had been receiving
visits from prospective husbands and she disliked them all. To make matters
worse, she wasn't allowed to choose her husband for herself. Her late father
had left a provision in his will that Portia's husband would be chosen
by lottery. Three caskets one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead -
had been laid out, and only one of these contained a portrait of the lady.

Any potential suitor must choose one of the caskets. If the casket he chose
contained the portrait, he could marry Portia; if not, he would be compelled
to leave and never woo another woman again. Fortunately for Portia, none
of the suitors who had sought her had as yet guessed the right casket.

Elsewhere, Launcelot, Shylock's comical
servant, decided he would finally escape from his master's employ; Shylock
was simply too cruel to endure. Launcelot paused long enough to break the
news to Jessica, Shylock's daughter, who was heartbroken to see him go.

"Our house is a hell," she said, "and thou, a merry devil, Didst rob it
of some taste of tediousness." Before he left, Jessica gave Launcelot a
letter to deliver to Lorenzo, a friend of Bassanio's with whom she had
fallen in love. The letter instructed Lorenzo to meet her at her house,
where she would escape in disguise and elope with him. That night, Jessica
and Lorenzo carried out their lovers' plan, fleeing the city in a gondola
filled with Shylock's ducats. When Shylock learned that his daughter had
run away to marry a Christian, he was at once crushed and furious, and
grew all the more fervent in his hatred of Antonio and his Christian friends.

In the meantime, Bassanio had made his
way to Portia, ready to hazard a try at the caskets. Portia immediately
fell in love with him and feared lest he should choose the wrong box. But,
guided by Portia's sea-blue eyes, Bassanio avoided the temptation to choose
the gold or silver caskets, and, wisely declaring, "All that glitters is
not gold," correctly selected the unassuming lead. Both Portia and Bassanio
were elated. But no sooner were their wedding plans underway than they
were interrupted by horrifying news from Venice: every one of Antonio's
ships had been shipwrecked in a storm, leaving him penniless and unable
to pay his debt to Shylock. Shylock would now obtain the revenge he sought.