The Merchant of Venice Story

The Merchant of Venice Story

William Shakespeare is believed to have written the Merchant of Venice between the years of 1596 and 1598. While the Merchant of Venice is identified as a comedy within the First Folio, and though it may share some comedic elements with Shakespeare’s other comedies, the Merchant of Venice is notable for its dramatic moments.  Shakespeare’s play is often remembered for the character of Shylock and the well-known “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech. Another noteworthy moment is Portia’s speech regarding “the quality of mercy.”

Interestingly, the title character of the Merchant of Venice is in fact the merchant Antonio, not the play’s most notable character, the moneylender Shylock. This is evident in the title page of the play’s first quarto: “The most excellent History of the Merchant of Venice. With the extreme cruelty of Shylock the Jew towards the Merchant…”


The lovely heiress Portia of Belmont is desired by the young noble Venetian Bassanio, who has spent away his estate. Bassanio is friends with Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, who has helped him when he needed money in the past. Bassanio asks Antonio for 3,000 ducats in order to subsidize the expenses for him to court Portia. The merchant of Venice agrees to help his friend, but since his cash is tied up at the moment while his ships are out to sea, he consents to cover a bond if Bassanio can acquire a lender. Bassanio asks Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for a loan, naming Antonio as guarantor.

Antonio had antagonized Shylock in the past with his anti-Semitic views, and by lending money without interest, requiring Shylock to lower his rates. While Shylock is initially unwilling to lend the money as a result of Antonio’s behavior, he ultimately decides to grant the loan without interest with one caveat: If Antonio does not repay the loan by the agreed-upon date, the merchant of Venice will owe Shylock a pound of his flesh. Bassanio tries to convince Antonio not to agree to the condition, but Antonio is shocked by Shylock’s willingness to lend the money without interest and accepts the agreement. Once he receives the loan, Bassanio departs for Belmont, alongside his friend Gratiano. While he is a friendly young man, Gratiano can be glib and impolite, which is why Bassanio urges him to exercise restraint.

In Belmont, Portia is surrounded by suitors. Portia’s father left a will requiring that all of his daughter’s suitors must correctly choose from one of three  caskets – the first of gold, the second of silver and the third of lead. The suitor that selects the correct casket will win Portia. The opulent Prince of Morocco is the first suitor to choose, and he selects the gold casket, taking “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (Act 2 Scene 7) to mean Portia. The next suitor, the vain Prince of Arragon, selects the silver casket, which decrees “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (Act 2 Scene 7), considering himself to be the most worthy. Both suitors leave without Portia, both having dismissed the lead casket because of its non-precious contents and unappealing adage: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (Act 2 Scene 7). Bassanio is the final suitor, and Portia hopes he is successful, as she has already met him.

While Bassanio considers his decision, Portia’s household sings a song that convinces Bassanio to ignore “outward shows” and instead select the lead casket. As a result, he wins Portia’s hand in marriage.

Back in Venice, Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea, which makes him incapable of fulfilling the bond. Shylock has become even more resolute in his desire for revenge against the Christians after his daughter Jessica eloped with a Christian. Not only did she marry the Christian Lorenzo, but she also took a great deal of Shylock’s wealth when she left, along with a turquoise ring which was gifted to Shylock by Leah, his late wife. Shylock brings Antonio to court.

In Belmont, Bassanio is informed that Antonio was not able to repay Shylock’s loan. Bassanio marries Portia, and his friend Gratiano marries her handmaid Nerissa. Then, with money from Portia, Bassanio and Gratiano head for Venice to rescue Antonio by giving the money to Shylock. Meanwhile, without informing her husband, Portia has sent Balthazar, her servant, to get advice from her cousin Bellario, a lawyer from Padua.

The height of the action in the Merchant of Venice takes place at the court of the Duke of Venice. Bassanio offers Shylock twice the amount of the original loan, but Shylock refuses his offer, insisting on the pound of flesh from the merchant of Venice, Antonio. The Duke of Venice wants to help Antonio but is unable to cancel the contract. Instead, he directs the case to a young visiting man named Balthazar, who claims to be a doctor of the law, and who brings with him a letter of recommendation from the lawyer Bellario. In reality, the lawyer is Portia disguised as a man, and she is attended by Nerissa, in the disguise of a lawyer’s clerk. Portia delivers a memorable speech while in disguise, beseeching Shylock to be merciful, suggesting that mercy is “twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes” (Act 4 Scene 1). Still, Shylock ignores the pleas for mercy and demands his pound of flesh from the merchant of Venice.

When the court awards Shylock the bond and Antonio readies himself for death, Portia cleverly seizes on Shylock’s claim for “specific performance” and reveals that the agreement only permits Shylock to detach the flesh from Antonio, not his blood. Therefore, if Shylock were to spill any blood from the merchant of Venice, he would lose all of his lands and goods, according to the laws of the land. Plus, the contract states that he must remove exactly one pound of Antonio’s flesh – if he were to remove even slightly more or less, his wealth would be forfeited.

Thwarted, Shylock reluctantly agrees to accept Bassanio’s offer to repay the debt. Yet, Portia rejects this proposal, stating that he had just refused the offer in open court. Next, she references a law that states that since Shylock is a Jew, he is considered an “alien,” and since he tried to have a citizen killed, he must surrender all his property – to be split between the government and the merchant of Venice, Antonio. Ultimately, Shylock’s fate is placed in the hands of the Duke, who shows mercy and spares his life. Antonio requests that he receive his portion “in use” until Shylock dies, at which time the principal will go to Jessica and Lorenzo.

The Duke agrees to remit the government’s share of Shylock’s estate, but only if Shylock agrees to convert to Christianity and if he leaves his full estate to his daughter and her husband upon his death. Bassanio did not recognize Portia in disguise as the lawyer, but offers her up a gift. While she initially declines, she eventually accepts after Bassanio insists. Portia asks for Bassanio’s ring and also for Antonio’s gloves. While Antonio immediately hands over his gloves, Bassanio must be convinced by Antonio before he agrees to give up his ring. He had promised Portia that he would never part with the ring. Similarly, Nerissa, also in disguise, is able to convince her husband Gratiano to hand over his ring.

Back at Belmont, Portia and Nerissa act as if they are insulted over the loss of the rings, only to reveal that they were in fact the ones in disguise. The characters all make up, and the play ends as the merchant of Venice is told by his wife that three of his vessels were not lost at sea and have made it home safely.

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