The Merchant of Venice
By: William Shakespeare
Summary of Act 1
Antonio, a merchant, expresses unhappiness. His friends Salerio and Salanio find out what is wrong and ask if he is worried about his ships, or in love. It appears that he has no basis for his unhappiness and Salerio suggests that he could choose to be happier. They then see Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano coming up the street. Salerio and Salanio leave Antonio to his other friends. Gratiano advises Antonio to cheer up. Bassanio, who has known Antonio for some time and has borrowed money from them in the past, tells the group of a rich lady he hopes to marry. He suggests that if he could marry Portia all his money problems would be over. Antonio is willing to help his friend with traveling money but he is short on cash and will need to borrow money.
Portia complains of weariness and her companion, Nerissa, advises her to appreciate what she has. They discuss Portia's fathers will, which outlines the terms for Portia's marriage options. Her suitors must choose the correct casket, a jewelry box, from three choices. They can choose from gold, silver, or lead, and the correct box contains a picture of Portia. Portia makes fun of her current suitors. Nerissa suggest that if the drunk German chooses the correct box Portia should refuse him anyway. Nerissa mentions Bassanio and Portia shows interest in him coming to Belmont. Nerissa reveals that the other suitors have decided to leave because of the provision in the will that forces a rejected suitor to never marry. A messenger comes in to tell them of five more suitors that have arrived. Portia expresses disinterest in marring a Prince of Morocco who has a dark complexion.
Plot and setting
The play revolves around one main plot and three sub-plots.The main plot centers on the question of mercy and forgiveness as seen in the relationship between Antonio, the kind Christian, and Shylock, the unrelenting Jew.The three subplots revolve around the romances of Portia and Bassanio, of Lorenzo and Jessica, and of Gratiano and Nerissa. All four plots are bound by the threads of love, generosity, friendship, and the wise use of money, which are the ideals of the Elizabethan society.The plots are also reflective of one another. Antonio's love for Bassanio is reflected in Bassanio's love for Portia. The love of Gratiano and Nerissa is modeled after the love of Portia and Bassanio. Jessica, like Antonio and Bassanio, recognizes the greed of her father and wants to replace it with Christian love, which she finds in Lorenzo.The characters are, therefore, are tied together by friendship and Christianity. In the end, the play is a romantic comedy that emphasizes the rewards of love, generosity, and harmony.
Antonio is a wealthy but sad older merchant who claims never to have borrowed money but is willing to lend to friends, especially Bassanio, without benefit of interest.
Widely pursued noblewoman who is as intelligent as she is rich and beautiful. Her fathers will demands that her husband be selected through a test involving three caskets: one of gold, one of silver and one of lead. Portias mind allows her to find loopholes in legal matters, thus rescuing her new husbands friend from his bond.
A young man with expensive tastes and rich friends who borrows money from Antonio in order to court the rich, intelligent, and beautiful Portia.
Structure of the play
Antonio loves Bassanio, and Portia's father has set up the game of the caskets.
Everything is in a relatively uncomfortable place to begin with. In Venice, Antonio is sad, likely because he knows he's losing Bassanio to Portia. Portia, meanwhile, is not in her natural state either. Her father has died, and her biggest problem is this awful lottery he's set up, rendering her unable to choose her own husband.
Bassanio is poor and needs Antonio to help him woo Portia. Antonio can only turn to Shylock, who is Jewish and thus hated. Antonio has to sign away a pound of his flesh as a guarantee on Bassanio's loan. Bassanio finally gets a go at Portia, but he's got to pick the right casket.
Everyone has at least one conflict here. Antonio knows he's losing Bassanio, but he'll still do anything in his power to make Bassanio happy. He asks for money from Shylock, but Shylock explains the twisted past the two have together, full of hatred and mutual religious animosity. Shylock is willing to lend Bassanio the money on the weird condition that Antonio sign away a pound of his flesh. Bassanio senses this is a bad idea, but Antonio is pretty sure it will all work out. As he's already confessed he is meant to play a sad part, we're sure something will go awry here. Bassanio, at Portia's house, is faced with the fact that he must pick the right casket or never see her again. Tortured by this uncertainty, Bassanio insists on playing the casket game as soon as possible.
Antonio's not good for the money and is going to be killed. Jessica has run away. Portia has to postpone marital bliss to save Antonio. And Shylock seems hell-bent on having Antonio's flesh instead of his money back.
No sooner than Bassanio wins Portia, a letter arrives announcing Antonio's sad fate: his ventures have failed and Shylock wants his flesh. Shylock seems to be more enraged than ever, and the fact that Jessica ran away with his money adds to the anger he seems to take out on Antonio. Shylock seems perversely committed to having Antonio's hide, not the money, and Antonio is resigned to his fate. He asks only that Bassanio come and see him before he dies (which complicates Bassanio's good luck – he has to immediately leave his new bride to see his old friend). As Portia is insistent on having everything turn out her way, she sets out after the men with Nerissa in disguise to see what they can do about Antonio's case. Not only is the case complicated, but this further confusion of the cross-dressed women is sure to add some drama.
The trial: many are tested, few will win.
The play builds to the point where Antonio is practically shirtless in anticipation of the knife. Need we say more?
Shylock is put out in the street. Bassanio and Graziano break faith by giving away their rings, and the women rush home.
The Christians of Shakespeare's time would have seen Shylock's ending as a cliffhanger. Sure, he's been ruined, but will he find salvation in his new religion (Christianity)? Meanwhile, Graziano has stopped Portia on the street and handed over Bassanio's ring. Nerissa wrings Graziano's ring out of him too. The women have just done a great (if secret) service to the men by saving Antonio, and they can rightfully expect the men's gratitude and loyalty in return. Instead, the men give up their rings to the seemingly random doctor and clerk. This shows that they put their friendship and their own affairs above their wives, and they might be faithless in marriage after all. We've yet to see how the ring situation will pan out and whether the women will forgive their men for breaking their promises and offering up their lives to save their friend. The last task is for the women to get home before their husbands and remind everyone to keep their absence a secret so they can further toy with the ignorant minds of their menfolk.
Everyone gets home to Belmont and seems happy enough. The couples squabble but reconcile. Antonio is sorry to have caused so much trouble.
There's a merry greeting at Belmont, and everything seems to be winding down until Graziano and Nerissa get in a squabble over the ring issue. Portia lets on that she won't let this get out of hand, which keeps us nicely calm and denouement-y as she eggs Bassanio on to admit that he too has given away his ring. As Portia is rather lighthearted about the whole affair (she promises to sleep with the doctor, which we know is impossible), we get the hint that the whole thing might not end too badly. Most important, this squabble gets Antonio to finally apologize, as he's been at the root of this particular trouble (and arguably would have been a pain through Bassanio's whole marriage). When he comes around to Portia's side by pledging Bassanio's faithfulness to her, we know everything will be OK.
Portia reveals everything. Antonio is rich again.
Portia finally reveals the whole gig by presenting letters that explain how she was Balthazar and Nerissa his clerk. She accepts Antonio's apology and goes even further, ensuring that, even if he's lost his friend, he's got his money back. (This is where she delivers the news of his ships' success.) The whole play ends in relative harmony and all the marriages are consummated (though Antonio and Shylock are left in the proverbial cold).
The Merchant of Venice weaves many themes into its complex set of plots. One of the themes is that religious intolerance and usury are destructive forces. Antonio, as a true Christian, has often condemned the usury of moneylenders. He knows that since the early twelfth century, Christians are forbidden by the Church to lend money for profit. Shylock, as a Jew, does not consider his money-lending and exorbitant interest to be a sin in any manner. In fact, he considers his earnings through money lending as the gift of God. He appeals to and quotes the Scriptures in defense of his profession. Shylock and the other Jewish moneylenders are essential to the prosperity of the mercantile Venetian community, but they are also outcasts as human beings and as Jews. The Christians ridicule and hate the Jewish moneylenders and are known even to spit upon them. In fact, Antonio has spit upon Shylock and called him a dog. These acts of religious intolerance cause Antonio many problems, for Shylock wants revenge and almost gets it in the course of the play.