The Merchant of venice

Summary

structure

The play has 5 acts. In the first acts. The first act has 3 scenes, The second act has 9 scenes, The third act has 5 scenes, the fourth act has 2 scenes, the fifth act has 1 scene. 

Plot and setting

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 (the most important couple in the play), of Lorenzo and Jessica, and of Gratiano and Nerissa (the least important couple of the play). All of them are bound by the threads of love, generosity, friendship, and the wise use of money, which are the ideals of the Elizabethan society.

Act 1 Summary

Antonio, a merchant of Venice, talks of his sadness with his friends Salerio and Solanio, who believe that his heavy investments at sea must cause him worry. When he says that doesn’t bother him, since his wealth isn’t invested in just one ship, they claim he must be in love. Antonio shrugs this off as well. When Bassanio enters, he tells Antonio of Portia, a rich and beautiful woman he has fallen in love with, and, although he has borrowed money from Antonio before and hasn’t paid it back, asks to borrow money again so that he may court her, and thus have enough money to pay Antonio back completely. Even though Antonio’s money is tied up in the ships, he allows Bassanio to see what kind of loan he can secure with Antonio’s credit. In Belmont, Portia complains to her servant Nerissa, that she cannot choose her own husband; her dead father has stipulated in his will that Portia’s suitors must pass a test in which they must choose among three caskets—one lead, one silver, and one gold—to find which one contains her portrait. The one who chooses correctly will become Portia’s husband and inherit her fortune, but if suitors fail, they may never marry. Portia and Nerissa discuss the faults of suitors who have come and gone, and remember Bassanio as one who might be worthy to be her husband. Shylock agrees to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats for three months based on Antonio’s credit but is skeptical, since all of Antonio’s assets are tied up at sea. He confesses in an aside that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian who lends money without interest, which makes Shylock’s profession as a moneylender difficult. Shylock has also been offended by Antonio’s public physical and verbal assaults against him for usury, which is considered a sin by Christians. When Shylock points out Antonio’s hypocrisy, Antonio points out he makes the exception for Bassanio, not for himself.

Act 2 Summary

Morocco has come to take the casket challenge to win Portia’s hand, but she tells him that if he fails, he may never marry.Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, ponders running away from Shylock to serve another master. He encounters his father, Old Gobbo, who is nearly blind and doesn’t recognize his son. Launcelot plays a trick on his father, misdirecting him and pretending that Launcelot is dead, but soon reveals himself and asks for his father’s blessing. During their reunion, Launcelot begs Bassanio to have him as a servant. Bassanio then sees Gratiano, who asks to go to Belmont with Bassanio. Bassanio allows Gratiano to accompany him, making clear, however, that Gratiano needs to be on his best behavior, since he has a reputation for being a wild man. Gratiano agrees, but asks that his behavior not be judged on the partying they plan to do that night.Jessica tells Launcelot that she, too, plans to run away from her father’s house with Bassanio’s friend Lorenzo.Lorenzo, Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio make plans for the masque, a Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) celebration, discussing whether or not they should arrange for torchbearers. Launcelot, on his way to invite Shylock to dine with Bassanio, arrives with Jessica’s letter detailing her plans for escape, which includes taking her father’s gold and jewels. Lorenzo tells Gratiano that Jessica will be disguised as a page and will serve as a torchbearer during the night’s festivities.Shylock reacts angrily to Launcelot’s leaving him, but accepts the invitation to eat with Bassanio despite some nagging premonitions. Launcelot hints to Shylock that there will be a Shrove Tuesday masque that night, and Shylock orders Jessica to lock up the house so as to avoid getting robbed by the revellers. Launcelot tells Jessica that Lorenzo will go through with their plans.Gratiano and Salerio meet Lorenzo outside Shylock’s house, in order to help Jessica, now dressed as a young man, escape with a casket of Shylock’s gold and jewels. As Gratiano is about to leave for the revelries, Antonio catches him, saying that Bassanio’s ship is about to depart, so he’d better skip the festivities. In Belmont, Morocco enters the lottery to win Portia’s hand in marriage. He reads the inscriptions on each of the caskets and selects the gold one, whose inscription reads, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (l.37). Since the gold casket is made of such a valuable material, he reasons, it is the only one fit to contain Portia’s image. When he opens the casket, he finds a skull with a scroll in the eye socket. When he leaves, Portia declares that she hopes that all “men of his complexion” (l.79) choose the same way.In one of the most racially charged scenes in the play, Solanio recounts for Salerio Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s theft and elopement. Solanio hopes Antonio is able to pay his debt, but Salerio has heard a rumor that Antonio’s ships have capsized. Salerio remembers how hard it was for Bassanio to leave Antonio, and the two decide to tell Antonio what they’ve heard, but to try to break the news to him gently.Aragon undergoes the casket test and selects the silver casket, which reveals a portrait of a “blinking idiot.” As soon as Aragon leaves, word comes that Bassanio has arrived to try the test.

Act 3 Summary

Solanio and Salerio have heard reports that confirm that Antonio’s ships have indeed wrecked, and they are concerned about his bond with Shylock. Shylock, still reeling from his daughter’s escape, hears from Salerio about Antonio’s bad fortune, and his grief turns to anger. Salerio questions whether Shylock will really take his pound of flesh from Antonio, and Shylock responds that he will take it in revenge, just as a Christian would (“Hath not a Jew” speech, ll.50-69). Tubal, another Jew, confirms Antonio’s shipwrecks and tells Shylock that he hasn’t found Jessica, but has heard that she has spent 80 ducats in one night and has traded her mother’s ring for a monkey. Enraged, Shylock gets an officer to arrest Antonio in order to collect his bond. Bassanio arrives in Belmont to vie for Portia’s hand, and she tries to delay his choice so as to spend more time with him in case he chooses incorrectly. She wishes she could teach him how to choose, and in fact gives him clues in her song, but will not defy the letter of the law of her father’s will. When Bassanio chooses correctly, Gratiano reveals that he is in love with Nerissa, completing the third romantic couple of the play. Lorenzo, Jessica, Salerio, and a messenger arrive from Venice, and Bassanio receives the news that Antonio has been arrested. Portia offers to repay the debt even twenty times over, and Bassanio makes plans to return to Venice to try to rescue his friend. Shylock takes Antonio to jail, with Antonio pleading for mercy in vain. Solanio and Antonio discuss whether the Duke will dismiss the case, but Antonio believes the law will hold. Portia leaves her estate in the hands of Lorenzo while pretending to stay at a monastery a few miles away during their husbands’ absence. Instead, she gets documents and legal clothing from her lawyer cousin so she and Nerissa may go to Venice. Portia promises she will divulge her plan on the way to Venice. In a scriptural debate Launcelot tells Jessica he believes she is damned for her father’s sins, but she asserts that because of her husband, she will not be. Launcelot complains about the conversion of the Jews, which, since they will not be forbidden to eat pork, will raise the price of bacon. Lorenzo enters and berates Launcelot for getting a Moorish servant pregnant. He and Nerissa discuss Portia’s merits, and Lorenzo comments that he is as great a husband as Portia is a wife.

Act 4 Summary

Shylock refuses to dismiss the bond, even for repayment of twice the original loan. The Duke tries to reason with Shylock, asking him to have mercy in order to gain mercy, but Shylock argues that, since he has purchased his pound of flesh, it is his to do with as he likes. Portia and Nerissa show up disguised, respectively as a young lawyer and a clerk, just as the Duke is ready to allow Shylock to claim his bond. Portia acknowledges the bond, but appeals to Shylock with her “quality of mercy is not strained” speech (ll.183-204). When he refuses, Portia says the law must be upheld, but asks him to reconsider mercy. Still, he demands his bond. As Shylock prepares his knife and the scales on which to weigh the flesh, Antonio bids a passion-filled farewell to Bassanio, who declares that he would give up his wife to keep Antonio alive, to Portia and Nerissa’s chagrin. As the sentence comes down, Portia reveals the loopholes in the law: not a drop of blood may be spilled with the taking of the pound of flesh; and precisely a pound of flesh may be taken, no more or less. Otherwise, all his possessions will be confiscated by the state of Venice. When Shylock backpedals, trying to take the payment rather than the bond, Portia shows no mercy. Furthermore, since Shylock has essentially plotted murder, his property will be split between Antonio and the state, and he is subject to the death penalty. The Duke allows him to live but requires that not only should Shylock’s property be willed to Lorenzo and Jessica but that Shylock become a Christian as well. Shylock assents, saying, “I am not well” (l.395).Antonio and Bassanio offer to pay the disguised Portia and Nerissa for their help. They refuse, but Portia agrees to take Antonio’s gloves, asking Bassanio for his wedding ring. Bassanio initially refuses, but recants, sending Gratiano to deliver the ring. Portia and Nerissa deliver the deed for Shylock to sign. Gratiano catches up to deliver Bassanio’s ring to them. Nerissa decides to get Gratiano to give up his ring, and both plot to make the men sorry they ever did.

Act 5 Summary

In Portia’s garden Lorenzo and Jessica compare themselves to famous romantic couples of myth and literature. When servants inform them of their masters’ arrivals, Lorenzo asks for music with which to greet Portia, noting its power to charm. Portia and Nerissa arrive, warning the servants not to mention their absence. Upon his return Bassanio introduces the women to Antonio. Portia and Nerissa quarrel with Bassanio and Gratiano respectively about their missing rings, withholding their husbands’ marital privileges until they have their rings back. In fact, both women confess they slept with the lawyer and his clerk to retrieve their rings.Before the men are too shocked at their wives’ “unfaithfulness”, Portia shows them a letter from her lawyer cousin explaining their roles in saving Antonio’s life. In true romantic form, Antonio’s ships miraculously return, Lorenzo and Jessica learn they will inherit Shylock’s fortune, and everyone retires to bed as morning comes.

Main Characters

1.Antonio: The title character, 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.2.Balthazar and Stephano: Servants to Portia.3.Bassanio: A young man with expensive tastes and rich friends who borrows money from Antonio in order to court the rich, intelligent, and beautiful Portia.The Duke of Venice: The reigning official of Venice who presides over the court where Shylock intends to collect on his bond.4.Gratiano: Bassanio’s friend with a bawdy and clownish demeanour. Accompanies Bassanio to Belmont to court Portia and falls in love with Portia’s servant Nerissa.5.Jessica: Shylock’s daughter, who escapes from her father’s house in order to marry Lorenzo. She converts to Christianity in order to further assimilate into the Christian society of Venice.6.Launcelot Gobbo: Shylock’s comic servant who leaves Shylock’s service to serve Bassanio.7.Lorenzo: Bassanio’s friend who falls in love with Shylock’s daughter Jessica.Nerissa: Portia’s handmaid who falls in love with Gratiano, Bassanio’s friend.8.Old Gobbo: Launcelot’s blind father who has not encountered his son in years.9.Portia: Widely pursued noblewoman who is as intelligent as she is rich and beautiful. Her father’s will demands that her husband be selected through a test involving three caskets: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Portia’s mind allows her to find loopholes in legal matters, thus rescuing her new husband’s friend from his bond.10.Prince of Arragon: One of Portia’s suitors who greedily chooses the golden casket.11.Prince of Morocco: Portia’s suitor and the only Black character in all of Shakespeare’s plays apart from Othello. Like Othello, he embodies many of the stereotypical Elizabethan perceptions of Moors: violent and sexual. He wrongly chooses the silver casket.12.Shylock: The Jewish merchant of Venice who lends Antonio the money on his friend Bassanio’s behalf. Clever and quick, Shylock is all at once a dark humorist, a moral absolutist, a religious bigot, an ogre, and, surprisingly, a sentimentalist. He serves as both the villain and the most tragic figure of the play.13.Salerio and Solanio: Friends of Antonio and Bassanio, minor characters almost indistinguishable from each other who comment on the action and who inform the audience about the action that has occurred offstage.14.Tubal: Shylock’s friend, the only other Jew in the play, who functions as a news bearer of Jessica’s escape and of her consequent behaviour.

Themes

Love And Wealth Many works of literature deal with conflicts between love and money. In The Merchant of Venice Shakespeare takes a more unusual approach to this subject, treating love as just another form of wealth. Love and money are alike, Shakespeare seems to be saying, in that they are blessings to those who can pursue them in the right spirit.  On the other hand, those who are too possessive, too greedy, will get pleasure neither from the pursuit of romantic love nor from the accumulation of wealth.  Bassanio sets out to win Portia’s love, solving his money problems at the same time. Shylock, in contrast, is a miser who hoards both his gold and his love and loses his daughter and his riches simultaneously.  Antonio demonstrates the love of one friend for another by pledging his own flesh to guarantee a loan for Bassanio.  He, too, is rewarded for his generosity.  Not only do Antonio’s ships come in at the end of the play, but Bassanio’s fortunate marriage enriches Antonio as well, bringing him Portia’s loyalty and friendship.The Merchant of Venice explores many different aspects of love: infatuation; the ‘politics’ of the relationships between men and women; the love one friend has for another; and the love of a parent for a child.Money, and the advantages and problems associated with it, is a central concern of the play.  Many of the characters are leisured and wealthy young people, and in one sense the play explores the problems facing the ‘idle rich’.It’s clear from Antonio’s first speech that the possession of riches does not always bring happiness. He has wealth, but is ‘sad’ and does not really know why. Although Antonio is a pleasant and loyal fellow it seems that, apart from his investments and returns, he idles away most of his time. Portia argues that they all show signs of the ‘tediousness’ of life: they seem to lack meaning in their lives. This may account for the amount of time the charac­ters have for words, arguments, and even for nasty gossip. Bassanio says that Gratiano ‘speaks an infinite deal of nothing’ (1, 1, 114), but Shakespeare shows us that this is true of many of the well‑off youth. Nerissa’s comment that ‘they are as sick that surfeit with too much as they that starve with nothing’ (1, 2, 5–6), sums up the problems facing these people. Prejudice breeds well in this environment of the idle rich. Many of the characters are bored, and spend their time cultivating their biases.Be aware of how Shakespeare dramatises the conflicting themes of love and hate (e.g. Antonio’s affection for Bassanio is the basis for the signing of the bond; it is the bond which feeds Shylock’s impetus for revenge) and uses these themes to create and increase dramatic tension show (e.g. in the trial scene, Antonio’s selfless sacrifice is set against Shylock’s selfish and ruthless pursuit of revenge) throughout the play. Friendship It is not only romantic love that is discussed as a form of wealth in The Merchant of Venice. Friendship, too, is an important aspect of ‘love’s wealth’. Today, you sometimes hear the idea expressed that a husband and wife ought to be each other’s best friends; a happy marriage takes precedence over outside friendships.  Shakespeare’s audience would no doubt have found this notion rather bizarre – suitable, perhaps for starry-eyed and headstrong young lovers, but hardly the basis for life-long happiness.  In the play, Portia demonstrates her depth of character by understanding that her husband’s happiness depends on his ability to discharge his obligations as a friend.  Thus, his loyalties have become her loyalties.  Much more than today, the Elizabethans expected friendship to be the glue that held together business relationships between social equals.  You will notice that Shylock’s refusal to dine with Bassanio is treated in the play as an act of hostility.  This was a common view in Elizabethan times; religious and dietary laws which kept Jews from socializing with Christians on a friendly basis were seen as sinister, an expression of untrustworthy intentions.Mercy Versus Revenge / Justice and InjusticeA number of Shakespeare’s plays are concerned with the question of justice and the nature of legitimate authority.  The Merchant of Venice poses the question of whether the law should be tempered by mercy, or whether it should be morally neutral.  If neutral, then the law can become a tool in the hands of men such as Shylock, who use it to further their own personal vendettas.  In Act IV of the play, we find Portia arguing that the justice of the state, like God’s justice, ought to be merciful.  Mercy does triumph eventually in this courtroom scene, but not until Portia reveals a legal loophole which makes it possible for the Duke to rule in her favour.  In the world of this comedy, at least, the conflict between morally neutral law and merciful law is easily resolved.  Readers do disagree, however, as to how well the theme of mercy’s triumph over revenge is carried out by the “good” characters’ treatment of Shylock.  HarmonyAs you read the play, you may find sub-themes which contrast other sets of values, in addition to those of mercy and revenge.  For example, the test of the three caskets points out the truth that external beauty and inner worth are not always found together.  On the whole, however, the play stresses harmony, not conflict.  The play seems to tell us that in a well-balanced life the pursuit and enjoyment of money, romantic love, and deep friendship will not necessarily conflict.  It is possible to experience and enjoy all of these things – but only if we do not place undue importance on gaining any one of them.The theme of harmony is stressed throughout the play by the use of music and musical imagery.  Portia and Lorenzo both praise and enjoy music for its power to ease sorrowful moments and make us more reflective in times of happiness.  Notice, too, that Shylock – the character who is out of harmony with his society – fears the power of music.  He even orders his daughter to close up the house to keep out the music of the masque.Appearances Can Be Deceiving / Reality and AppearanceThe Merchant of Venice warns us repeatedly that outer beauty is not necessarily evidence of inner worth. As the motto on the gold casket puts it: “All that glisters is not gold”.  Some audiences feel that the emphasis on this moral is out of place in the play.  After all, Portia the heroine turns out to be as good and wise as she is beautiful and rich.  Another way of looking at this theme’s relation to the action is to say that Shakespeare has gone beyond the obvious, clichéd implications of his theme to hit on a deeper reality.  Even a beautiful, desirable woman deserves to be loved for her inner self, not just collected like an object of art.  The rewards from all worthwhile relationships can be achieved only when the partners open their hearts to each other.  By the same reasoning, money itself is not necessarily a bad thing – but you must be careful to love it for the good it can do.  Shylock’s failing is not that he is rich, but that he seeks to use his money for an evil end – revenge. ReligionShakespeare was clearly interested in exploring the relationship between Christianity and Judaism in The Merchant of Venice. Jews were persecuted in Elizabethan England, and it is no coincidence that the heroes in the play are Christians and the villain is Jewish. It is interesting to note, however, that the Christian heroes do not seem to be particularly good Christians. They tend to be more concerned with worldly things – such as trade and Christian values such as spirituality or mercy.  Ironically, the most spiritual person in the play seems to be Shylock, though he tends to use his religious faith to justify his hatred of the Christians.Shakespeare shows, therefore, that religion can be used for bad purposes, just as it can inspire good deeds. He makes it difficult for us to make any simple conclusions about the nature or influence of religion.