Book Summary: The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

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The path to marriage is hazardous in The Merchant of Venice. In order to win Portia, Bassanio must fulfil a test prescribed in her father’s will, choosing correctly among three caskets or chests. Otherwise, he may not get married at all.

Bassanio and Portia also face a formidable villain, the moneylender Shylock. It appears Shakespeare shared a prejudice against Jews in creating Shylock. The fact that Shylock was a Jew would have made him look like a villain. Yet he expresses his alienation due to the hatred around him with such power that he emerges as the hero in many productions.

Portia is perhaps best remembered for her disguise as a lawyer, Balthazar, in which she urges Shylock to show Mercy that “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.”

You may still be wondering if you should read the book. This book summary will tell you everything about this book so you can decide if it is worth your time.

Without further ado, let’s get started. 

Plot Summary

A Venetian merchant risks his fortune and life to help his best friend marry a beautiful heiress, and is rewarded when the couple rescues him from a cruel moneylender who seeks to destroy him.

ACT 1 

The Venetian merchant Antonio is sad without knowing why. Friends suggest that they may be worried because his six vessels are out at sea, where the waters are dangerous, but Antonio claims this is not the reason. A more likely cause for his sadness is that his dear friend Bassanio plans to leave Venice for the distant region of Belmont with the hope of marrying the beautiful heiress Portia. 

Bassanio, debt-ridden, asks Antonio for a loan to make the trip, promising to repay him once he has married Portia and gained access to her wealth. Although unable to lend any money of his own, Antonio agrees to arrange a loan for his friend.

At Belmont, Portia is also depressed about her situation. Although courted by many rich and noble suitors, she is unable to choose any for her husband since each must undergo a trial established by Portia’s late father. 

Each suitor must choose between three caskets—one of the gold, one of silver, one of lead—and the suitor who chooses the one that contains Portia’s portrait is free to marry her.

If he chooses incorrectly, he must leave immediately and swear never to marry another woman. Not only does Portia despair over the test, but she also finds her present suitors to be sorely lacking.

In Venice, Bassanio discusses the terms of the loan with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who bears a deep hatred for Christians. Antonio then arrives and guarantees the loan for his friend, swearing that it will be repaid within three months. 

Remembering how Antonio has insulted him and taken away business by offering interest-free loans, Shylock structures the bond for the loan so that if Antonio is unable to repay within three months, Shylock may take a pound of flesh from whatever part of Antonio’s body he chooses. Antonio agrees to these dangerous terms.

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ACT 2 

In Venice, Bassanio’s talkative young friend Gratiano asks if he may accompany Bassanio to Belmont. In another part of town, Shylock’s daughter Jessica takes some of her father’s jewels and money in order to elope with Lorenzo, a young Christian.

At Belmont, the Prince of Morocco arrives and announces his intention to choose the right casket. He decides upon the golden one, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me, shall gain what many men desire,” thinking that by doing so he will gain Portia, since “all the world desires her.” 

Yet, upon opening the casket, he discovers only a picture of a skull and a poem that states, “All that glisters is not gold.” He leaves in shame.

In Venice, Shylock reacts to Lorenzo and Jessica’s flight with a mixture of sorrow over his daughter’s departure and anger that she has taken his money and jewels. News also begins to arrive that some of Antonio’s ships are lost at sea, thereby jeopardizing his ability to repay Shylock’s loan.

The Prince of Arragon arrives in Belmont to try his luck with the caskets. He decides upon the silver one, which reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” Upon opening the casket he discovers the portrait of a “blinking idiot,” and so leaves in shame. Portia then receives word that Bassanio has arrived.


News continues to reach Venice that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. Shylock takes pleasure in Antonio’s bad news, hoping he will soon be able to “feed my revenge” against his Christian enemies.

In Belmont, Bassanio prepares to choose between the caskets. As he considers them, Portia—who is attracted to Bassanio—has a song played that secretly gives him clues as to which is the correct casket. Knowing that “the world is still deceived with ornament,” he disdains the gold and silver caskets, choosing instead the lead one, which bears the inscription, “Who chooseth me, must give and hazard all he hath.” 

His choice proves correct, and he finds inside Portia’s portrait and a poem giving her to “you that choose not by view.” Portia gladly agrees to marry Bassanio that very day and to give him all she owns. 

She presents him with a golden ring, a symbol of their love for each other; if ever he should give the ring away or lose it, this would be the end of their marriage.

Portia’s lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, and Gratiano announce that they too are getting married. Nerissa, like Portia, gives her love a ring he must always wear.

Lorenzo and Jessica then arrive and are welcomed by Bassanio and Portia. But the joyous occasion soon darkens when a messenger enters with news of Antonio’s ill luck: all his ships are lost, and Shylock threatens to collect his “pound of flesh.” Portia offers to pay the loan; then she announces that she and Bassanio should go to the church to get married (“dispatch all business”) and that Bassanio should return to Venice to save his friend. Nerissa and Gratiano go with them to get married as well; Gratiano then accompanies Bassanio to Venice. 

Portia promises to wait patiently in Belmont until the matter is resolved. In Venice, meanwhile, Antonio’s pleas for mercy fall upon deaf ears as Shylock insists, “I will have my bond.” Antonio realizes he has no recourse and is resigned to his fate. In Belmont, meanwhile, Portia informs Nerissa of her plan to rescue Antonio by traveling to Venice disguised as a young doctor of law.

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ACT 4 

In a Venetian court of justice, the Duke prepares to decide whether Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke attempts to persuade Shylock to “forgive” the debt with “human gentleness and love.” 

But the moneylender states that his contract (bond) with Antonio makes no provision for such gentleness and demands that their agreement be enforced exactly. So the Duke prepares to let Shylock take the flesh, having no other choice under Venetian law.

Yet, before this can happen, Portia and Nerissa arrive at court disguised as the young doctor of law, “Balthazar,” and his clerk. The Duke asks “Balthazar’s” opinion on the case, whereupon “he” urges that “the Jew be merciful.” Shylock responds by claiming to “crave the law,” which does not require mercy.

“Balthazar” then examines the facts of the case and determines that Shylock is indeed entitled to one pound from around Antonio’s heart, as specified in the bond. As Shylock praises “Balthazar’s” wisdom, Antonio bravely prepares to die.

“Balthazar,” however, is not finished with “his” judgment. In keeping with Shylock’s desire for the exact letter of the law, “he” further states that though Shylock is entitled to take exactly one “pound of flesh,” if Shylock sheds “one drop of Christian blood,” then his “lands and goods” shall be confiscated by the state of Venice since the contract makes no mention of bloodshed. 

Shylock realizes he is beaten and tries simply to collect his money. But the court decides to pursue the matter and to examine Shylock’s original motives. They find him guilty of trying to take Antonio’s life, and under state law, he is forced to surrender half of his possessions to the state and the other half to Antonio. 

In an act of mercy, however, the state agrees to lower its penalty to a fine, and Antonio will get the use of the other half of the estate until Shylock’s death, whereupon Jessica and Lorenzo will receive this portion as their inheritance. At the suggestion of Antonio, the court punishes Shylock further by ordering that he convert to Christianity.

Bassanio, who has been present in court but does not recognize his wife, thanks “Balthazar” and insists on giving “him” a gift. At first “Balthazar” declines, but then asks for Bassanio’s ring and Bassanio reluctantly gives it up.

Gratiano also gives away his wedding ring to the “clerk,” who had similarly requested it as a token payment.

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ACT 5 

In Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo welcome Portia home with music and a feast. Portia, eager to tease her husband about giving away the ring, bids her servants not to tell him of her absence. Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano then arrive, and the newly married couples are joyously reunited. 

But the women put an end to the merrymaking when they “discover” that their husbands have given away the wedding rings. Portia and Nerissa pretend to be unmoved by Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s explanations, saying they will not sleep with them until the rings are returned. To squeeze more fun from the situation, the wives tell their husbands that in fact they have slept with the possessors of the rings.

After the husband’s profess shock and amazement, Portia explains her deception, much to the delight of all. She then shows Antonio a letter stating that three of his ships have returned safely to port, and also tells Lorenzo and Jessica of their future inheritance. The couples retire to bed for their much-awaited wedding night.

Key Characters

Antonio: Merchant of Venice. Middle-aged, unmarried. Sad, melancholy, yet kind and generous to all except Shylock, whom he hates passionately. Risks his fortune and life so his friend Bassanio can be married to Portia.

Shylock: Middle-aged Jewish moneylender. Jessica’s father. Bitter, greedy, spiteful man. Hates Christian society because it treats him like a “dog.” Seeks revenge on Antonio for that treatment, yet his insistence on the letter of the law ultimately turns against him.

Portia: Young heiress forced to marry whichever man passes the test established by her late father. Intelligent, resourceful, strong-willed woman; gives her devotion and possessions to Bassanio when he chooses the correct casket. Disguises herself as a doctor of law to save her husband’s best friend.

Bassanio: Self-confident, carefree, risk-taking young Venetian. Uses money borrowed by Antonio to travel to Portia. Chooses the least likely casket and is rewarded with marriage to her.

Gratiano: Talkative, excitable friend of Bassanio. Marries Nerissa.

Nerissa: Portia’s lady-in-waiting. Marries Gratiano. Disguises herself as a law clerk to help Portia save Antonio from Shylock.

Jessica: Shylock’s daughter. Uses money and jewels secretly taken from her father in order to run away with her beloved Lorenzo.

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Themes and Ideas

1. Justice vs. Mercy 

Shakespeare contrasts the demands of justice and mercy, showing how a desire for absolute justice or revenge can destroy the person who seeks it, while the ability to be merciful benefits both the giver and the receiver.

“I crave the law,” claims Shylock, who demands that the exact letter of the law be carried out and who scoffs at requests that he show Antonio mercy. His lack of compassion leads to his ruin. Shakespeare’s point is that those who seek merciless justice and vengeance end up just as harshly judged as those they hate. 

Yet, while Shylock believes mercy should be given only when required by law, Portia claims in Act 4, Scene 1, that “The quality of mercy is not strained” (i.e., mercy is a humane act that should come willingly, not by force). 

She adds that mercy “blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.” One is “blessed” if one shows mercy toward others or if one receives it from another person. After Shylock is defeated, the Duke, Antonio, and “Balthazar” show him a certain amount of mercy by not having him punished to the full extent of the law: He is not hanged and is allowed to keep some of his property.

2. Christian vs. Jew 

Shakespeare contrasts Christian and Jewish societies and the viewpoint of each. The Christian world is based upon ideals of selfless love and generosity (represented mainly by Antonio), as well as mercy (represented by Portia). 

Yet, the play’s Christians do not always live up to these ideals. Venice’s wealth is based upon self-interested trade practices and the use of slaves. Christians do not always extend love to Jews, who are spat upon and treated as outcasts. Mercy is given to Shylock only in a small dose. The Jewish world (represented by Shylock) is based on the Old Testament ideals of justice and vengeance.

3. Wealth 

Shakespeare contrasts characters who use wealth generously with those who cling to it greedily. He shows how generosity contributes to happiness and love, while greed leads to hatred and ruin. 

When used in the service of love and friendship, wealth is seen as positive and good. Antonio readily gives money to Bassanio and is rewarded in the end by Portia’s help and Bassanio’s dedication. Portia gives all she has to her new husband and creates a happy marriage. Bassanio borrows money to pursue love. Jessica’s “theft” from her father allows her marriage to Lorenzo. 

In all these cases, wealth is used in the service of friendship and love. But when a person puts a higher value on wealth than on other people, the result is bitterness and unhappiness. Shylock values wealth above all else, even his daughter, whose flight pains him mainly because she has taken his money and jewels. The result? He ends up losing both his daughter and his wealth.

4. Appearance vs. Reality 

Shakespeare illustrates the difficulty of distinguishing appearance from reality. The story of the caskets shows how the true value of a person or thing is often very different from the apparent worth.

The princes of Morocco and Arragon choose caskets on the basis of their exteriors (gold, silver), yet discover that what is within is worthless. Bassanio ignores the casket’s cheap exterior and chooses one on the basis of the true worth it has to offer. The reward? His ideal wife. 

Also, characters use disguises to hide their real identity to gain their object of desire. Jessica disguises herself as a boy to flee with Lorenzo, while Portia’s disguise allows her to save Antonio from Shylock and to test Bassanio’s love by demanding the ring as payment. Though Bassanio “fails” Portia’s test, she forgives him, realizing that his motives were virtuous.

5. Love 

Selfless, dedicated love, whether it is friendship or a romantic relationship, is shown to be the most valuable element of human life. The play’s strongest, noblest characters love without thought of personal gain or self-interest: Antonio risks wealth and his life out of his feelings of friendship for Bassanio. Portia gladly gives all she has for her husband. 

To win Portia, Bassanio risks never being able to marry. All are rewarded in the end for the selfless, giving nature of their love. Those who love selfishly are punished: the two princes try to love according to what they want to gain or according to what they think they deserve and end up with nothing. Shylock, who loves gold above all else, ends up unloved and alone. 

Although the theme of love plays a vital role in The Merchant of Venice, this is the only Shakespearean romantic comedy where love is not the central theme of the play.

6. Moneylending 

Shakespeare uses the play to examine the practice of money-lending and usury (loans made at exorbitant interest rates). He sees the act of moneylending, per se, as positive; for example, Portia lends her wealth to help those she loves. Yet charging interest for money lent is depicted as a corrupt practice: Shylock tries to make money “breed,” to grow out of itself without involvement in human relationships. 

As a contrast to money/usury, Shakespeare shows how characters who take gambles and risks with love are rewarded with greater love and happiness: Antonio’s and Portia’s gambling generosity, Bassanio’s and Lorenzo’s risky adventures, all lead to greater returns and “interest” on their happiness.

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The Merchant of Venice Review

The Merchant of Venice is a captivating play that showcases Shakespeare’s mastery of language and storytelling. Through this work, Shakespeare explores themes of revenge, love, and injustice, presenting a complex and thought-provoking tale that continues to captivate readers and audiences to this day.

The play’s lead character, Shylock, is portrayed with sympathy and complexity, making him one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters. The story’s shape also sets it apart from its predecessor, The Jew of Malta, making it a unique and important work in Shakespeare’s canon.

Overall, The Merchant of Venice is a must-read for anyone interested in Shakespeare or in literature in general. Its timeless themes and engaging characters ensure that it will continue to be a favorite of readers and scholars for generations to come.

About The Author

William Shakespeare was an English playwright, poet, actor, and theatre shareholder born in Stratford-upon-Avon around 1564. He moved to London in about 1586 and worked in the theatre industry from the early 1590s until 1612.

Shakespeare wrote many different types of plays for popular theatre, including tragedies, comedies, romances, and historical dramas. His early plays reflected the optimistic and lively spirit of England as it emerged as a global power. However, his later plays, such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth, took on a more pessimistic and cynical tone, portraying the decadence and political corruption of the Elizabethan and Jacobean court.

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