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The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice Summary


Here you will find a The Merchant of Venice summary (William Shakespeare's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

The Merchant of Venice Summary Overview

The tale opens with a Venetian trader named Antonio, sinking into an unexplainable depression. His confidant Bassanio is in dire need of funds to woo Portia, a rich heiress residing in Belmont. Unable to assist financially as his wealth is tied up in seafaring trade ventures, Antonio suggests that Bassanio seek assistance from a moneylender, offering himself as a surety for the loan. Meanwhile, in Belmont, Portia is facing her own dilemma due to her father's will, which dictates her marriage to the suitor who correctly selects one from three caskets. However, none of her present suitors appeal to her and she fondly recalls a past visit from Bassanio. Back in Venice, Antonio and Bassanio approach Shylock, a Jewish moneylender with whom Antonio shares a fraught history, for a loan. Despite Antonio's derogatory treatment of him and his faith, Shylock surprisingly agrees to loan Bassanio three thousand ducats without interest, with a catch - if the loan isn't repaid, Shylock has the right to claim a pound of Antonio's flesh. During this period, Shylock's servant Launcelot and daughter Jessica defect from his household, with Jessica eloping with Antonio's friend Lorenzo. After the night of Jessica's escape, Bassanio and his friend Gratiano set sail for Belmont with the intention of winning Portia's hand. Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia has visitors - the Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Arragon, both of whom incorrectly select from the three caskets. On Bassanio's arrival, he and Portia confess their love for each other, and he successfully chooses the right casket. Gratiano also confesses his love for Nerissa, Portia's lady-in-waiting, and a double wedding is planned. However, their joy is short-lived as they receive news of Antonio's defaulted loan due to his ships wrecking. Bassanio and Gratiano rush to Venice to save Antonio, leaving behind Portia and Nerissa who decide to follow them in disguise. In Venice, despite numerous pleas for mercy and offers of twice the debt, Shylock remains adamant on claiming his pound of flesh from Antonio. However, Portia, disguised as a legal expert, outsmarts Shylock in his own game, resulting in him losing half of his wealth to the state and the other half to Antonio, who demands Shylock's conversion to Christianity and the bequeathing of his estate to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death. After much confusion, the situation is resolved, Antonio's ships return safely, and the group ends up rejoicing their good fortune.

act 1 scene 1

Antonio, a merchant from Venice, expresses his inexplicable sadness to his pals, Salarino and Solanio. They reckon it might be due to his business risks, as Antonio has numerous ships at sea. However, Antonio assures them his ventures aren't reliant on the success of one ship. Solanio insinuates that Antonio might be lovesick, but Antonio waves off the idea. They bump into Bassanio, Antonio's relative, and his companions, Lorenzo and Gratiano. After bidding Antonio adieu, Salarino and Solanio leave. Antonio's melancholy grabs Gratiano's attention, who advises him not to brood over business. Antonio replies, likening himself to a stage actor assigned a sorrowful role. Gratiano warns him not to put on a gloomy act to seem wise, and leaves with Lorenzo. Bassanio mocks Gratiano for his lack of substance, joking that his friend's insights are as scarce as “two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff” (I.i.115–116). Antonio urges Bassanio to spill the beans about his secret love affair. Bassanio confesses that, despite owing Antonio money from his past extravagances, he's smitten with Portia, a wealthy heiress. He aims to impress her by competing with her rich and influential suitors. However, he needs to borrow more funds from Antonio to pursue Portia. Antonio explains that he can't lend more money due to his current investments but promises to vouch for any loan Bassanio manages to secure.

act 1 scene 2

At Belmont, Portia tells her attendant, Nerissa, of her frustration over her lack of choice in marriage due to her late father's will. Her would-be husbands are required to pick from three boxes - gold, silver, and lead - and the one who chooses the box with her image wins her hand. Those who choose incorrectly vow to remain single. Nerissa mentions the prospective suitors - a prince from Naples, a count from Palatine, a French noble, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the nephew of Saxony's duke. Portia mocks their ridiculous flaws, like the prince's obsession with his horse, the count's seriousness, the Englishman's ignorance of Italian and other languages, and the German suitor's drunkenness. None of these suitors have risked a guess due to the harsh penalty of a wrong guess, much to Portia's relief. Both women recall Bassanio, a previous visitor who is seen as a deserving suitor. A servant informs Portia of the upcoming arrival of the prince of Morocco, which doesn't please her.

act 1 scene 3

Shylock, a Jewish lender, consents to lend Bassanio three thousand ducats for three months. Although Bassanio assures him Antonio will back the loan, Shylock has reservations due to Antonio's risky business investments. However, he finally relents as he's satisfied with Antonio's guarantee and requests to meet him. Upon meeting Antonio, Shylock admits his deep loathing for him. Antonio, a Christian, lends money without interest, hindering Shylock's practice of usury, or lending at high interest rates. Antonio's public criticism of Shylock furthers his resentment. Despite typically not borrowing or lending money, Antonio is willing to make an exception for Bassanio, his friend. They discuss usury, leading Antonio to reprimand it, while Shylock asserts it as a means to prosper. As Shylock determines the interest for Bassanio's loan, he recalls the numerous instances Antonio has berated him, calling him a “misbeliever, cut-throat, dog / And spit upon [his] Jewish gaberdine” (I.iii.107–108). Antonio admits he might do so again and requests to borrow money as an adversary. This way, Antonio argues, Shylock can impose a severe punishment if the loan isn't repaid. To ease Antonio's concerns, Shylock offers a no-interest loan and suggests, humorously, a pound of Antonio's flesh as collateral if the loan isn't paid back. Antonio dismisses Bassanio's caution against the agreement, confident that his incoming ships will yield enough wealth to clear the debt. Shylock tries to allay Bassanio's doubts, questioning any gain from a pound of Antonio's flesh. As he goes to the notary to finalize the deal, Antonio comments on Shylock's sudden kindness: “The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (I.iii.174). Bassanio remains doubtful, but Antonio reassures him of his ships' expected arrival within two months.

act 2 scene 1

The Moroccan prince comes to Belmont to court Portia. He seeks her approval regardless of his skin color, claiming to be as brave as any man from Europe. Portia tells him that her personal preference isn't relevant, as her father's will dictates the suitor selection through a "chest choosing" game. The prince, full of self-praise for his bravery, requests to play the game. Portia warns him that if he guesses wrong, he must stay single for life. He agrees to the terms and Portia escorts him to dinner.

act 2 scene 2

Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant, is torn between leaving or staying with his master. He battles with the "fiend... at mine elbow" in him that wants to leave, and his conscience telling him to stay due to his integrity (II.ii.2). Even with no specific issues, Launcelot feels discomfort with his Jewish master, referring to him as "a kind of devil" (II.ii.19). As he finally decides to leave, his blind father, Old Gobbo, appears. The elder Gobbo is searching for his son at Shylock’s house, but Launcelot tricks him by giving false directions and falsely announcing his own death. Upon revealing his identity and trick, Old Gobbo initially doubts him but eventually accepts that he is his son. Launcelot tells his father about his plan to leave Shylock and serve Bassanio. When Bassanio arrives, they convince him to hire Launcelot. After some confusion, Bassanio accepts. He then encounters Gratiano, who requests to join him in Belmont, but only if he can control his boisterous personality. Gratiano agrees, and a night of festivities is planned to mark their departure.

act 2 scene 3

Jessica, Shylock's daughter, parts ways with Launcelot, sharing that his company made her father's harshness more tolerable. She hands him a letter for Lorenzo, Bassanio's comrade, and Launcelot departs, barely keeping his emotions in check. Alone, Jessica admits to her shame for disowning her father but clarifies that their bond is only biological, not through actions. Nevertheless, she plans to liberate herself from the overwhelming connection to Shylock by tying the knot with Lorenzo and embracing Christianity.

act 2 scene 4

Gratiano, Lorenzo, Salarino, and Solanio converge on a Venetian road, hashing out the scheme to bring Lorenzo and Jessica together. Gratiano shows concern about their lack of readiness, yet Lorenzo calms his nerves, promising they have ample time to secure the needed disguises and torchbearers. Amid their conversation, Launcelot arrives with a letter from Jessica. Lorenzo instantly recognizes her handwriting and affectionately remarks that the hand which penned the note is “whiter than the paper it writ on” (II.iv.13). He then instructs Launcelot to sneak back to Shylock’s home to reassure Jessica that Lorenzo is committed to their plan. Once Launcelot leaves, Lorenzo tells his friends to ready themselves for the night's events. Salarino and Solanio depart, and Lorenzo reveals to Gratiano that Jessica intends to flee Shylock’s home in disguise as Lorenzo’s torchbearer. He hands the letter to Gratiano to read and leaves, thrilled for what the night may bring.

act 2 scene 5

Shylock cautions Launcelot that he may not find Bassanio as forgiving as he was, and his tendencies to overindulge in food and sleep won't be tolerated. He summons Jessica, revealing that he has dinner plans and sensing potential unrest, instructs her to keep the house locked and avoid the ongoing festivities outside. Launcelot quietly advises Jessica to defy her father and watch out for the Christian, stating he “will be worth a Jewës eye” (II.v.41). Shylock, suspicious of their secretive chat, mentions that Launcelot, despite his kindness, is too lazy to be a valuable servant. When Shylock departs to meet Bassanio, Jessica bids him goodbye, hoping to soon break free from her father, leaving him devoid of a daughter.

act 2 scene 6

Gratiano and Salarino anxiously gather outside Shylock's residence, waiting for Lorenzo who's running late. Gratiano elaborates on Salarino's idea that love is most exciting during the pursuit, but after achieving the desired result, the lover's interest tends to wane. Lorenzo finally shows up, apologizes for his delay, and beckons to Jessica who's disguised as a page and standing on the balcony. She throws him a box filled with gold and jewels. Jessica leaves with Lorenzo and Salarino. Antonio arrives with news that Bassanio is leaving for Belmont without delay, forcing Gratiano to abandon the celebration and join Bassanio immediately.

act 2 scene 7

Portia guides the prince of Morocco to the three caskets in Belmont for his attempt to win her love by guessing which box holds her image. The golden casket bears the message, “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire” (II.vii.37). The silver one reads, “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves” (II.vii.23). The last, made of heavy lead, states, “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath” (II.vii.16). After deliberation, the prince opts for the golden casket, convinced that such a valuable metal must hold the image of a lovely woman. However, he discovers a skull with a scroll in its eye socket inside. Upon reading a brief poem that criticizes him for his poor choice, the prince leaves hurriedly. Portia is relieved to see him leave, wishing that all men of his type would choose as he did.

act 2 scene 8

Solanio narrates to Salarino the furious reaction of Shylock when he discovered Jessica's secret departure. Shylock was distraught, lamenting his daughter's absence and the loss of his ducats, and loudly demanded justice according to law. Solanio expresses his wish for Antonio to clear his debt, but Salarino talks of the unconfirmed news of Antonio's ships sinking in the English Channel. The two recall the moment when Bassanio left Antonio, who urged him to concentrate on winning Portia's heart rather than worrying about his debt.

act 2 scene 9

Arragon, a prince, lands in Belmont with hopes of winning Portia's heart. He chooses the silver casket, convinced he "shall get as much as he deserves" (II.ix.35), only to find a picture of a fool and a judgmental poem inside. After his swift exit, Portia receives word that a hopeful young Venetian, appearing to be the ideal mate, has arrived to take part in the casket challenge. With the hope that the newcomer might be Bassanio, both Portia and Nerissa excitedly welcome the latest contestant.

act 3 scene 1

Salarino and Solanio are deep in conversation about the speculated shipwreck of another of Antonio's vessels. They're interrupted by Shylock, who blames them for aiding his daughter, Jessica's, departure. Unashamed, the two Venetians acknowledge their part in her escape. Shylock is hurt by Jessica's defiance, leading to Salarino's comment, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (III.i.32–33). Salarino then inquires if Shylock can validate the whispers about Antonio's misfortune. Shylock indicates Antonio's impending bankruptcy and assures he will recover his debt. Salarino questions Shylock's intent, asking what he would do with a pound of Antonio's flesh. Shylock coolly suggests that it would suffice his vengeance. In a brief speech, Shylock reveals Antonio's disrespect towards him for being a Jew and vows to retaliate with the hate and revenge he's learned from Christian bigotry. As Salarino and Solanio depart to find Antonio, Tubal, Shylock's Jewish ally, arrives. Tubal informs him of his unsuccessful search for Jessica. Shylock angrily wishes his estranged daughter dead while lamenting his losses. He's particularly saddened upon learning that Jessica traded a sentimental ring he received from Leah, who is likely Jessica's mother, for a monkey. Yet, Tubal also brings news that cheers Shylock up - Antonio's ships have encountered issues, leading his lenders to believe Antonio's financial downfall is near.

act 3 scene 2

At Belmont, Portia implores Bassanio to postpone his casket choice for a few days. She's afraid she'll lose him if he chooses wrong. But Bassanio wants to make his decision immediately to stop the agony of not having Portia as his wife. She requests some music while Bassanio makes his choice, likening him to the Greek hero Hercules. Examining the three caskets just like previous suitors, Bassanio dismisses the gold one, saying people are easily fooled by appearances. He also rejects the silver one, calling it ordinary. After much thought, he selects the lead casket and finds Portia’s picture inside, along with a poem praising his choice and confirming he has won her hand. The jubilant pair pledge their love and devotion to each other. Portia hands Bassanio a ring, instructing him to never remove it, as its removal would symbolize the end of his love for her. Gratiano and Nerissa also express their love for each other and propose a double wedding. Right in the middle of these celebrations, Lorenzo, Jessica, and Salarino appear. Salarino hands over a letter from Antonio to Bassanio. The letter says Antonio has lost all his ships and that Shylock is ready to collect his pound of flesh. This news distresses Bassanio, leading Portia to offer to pay twenty times the owing sum. Jessica is concerned that her father is more bent on revenge than recovering his money. Bassanio reads Antonio's letter aloud, where Antonio is asking for a brief meeting before he dies. Portia encourages her husband to go to his friend, and then Bassanio heads off to Venice.

act 3 scene 3

Shylock is taking Antonio, who's now destitute, to jail. Antonio tries to reason with Shylock, but in vain. Shylock reminds Antonio of his past insults, warning him of the consequences. Confident about the duke's fairness, Shylock is adamant about claiming his bond and dismisses any plea for mercy. Solanio brands Shylock as a despicable man, while Antonio believes Shylock resents him for helping his debtors. Solanio tries to reassure Antonio, believing that the duke won't endorse such an absurd agreement, but Antonio remains skeptical. He fears that violating the law could impact Venice's thriving commerce. As Solanio leaves, Antonio fervently hopes that Bassanio will witness him settling his debt, as he states, “see me pay his debt, and then I care not”.

act 3 scene 4

Lorenzo receives assurance from Portia about Antonio's worthiness for the help she's offering him. She believes that if she understood Antonio's real nature and depth of goodness, she would take pride in her efforts to rescue him. Portia expresses that she has never regretted helping someone, especially someone as essential to Bassanio as Antonio. To her, aiding Antonio is akin to helping her own husband, Bassanio, due to their close bond. She vows to spend her days in prayer until Bassanio's return, while declaring that Lorenzo and Jessica will take care of her estate as she and Nerissa temporarily retreat to a nearby monastery. Next, Portia instructs her servant Balthasar to travel to Padua, to meet her cousin, Doctor Bellario. The doctor is expected to provide Balthasar with necessary paperwork and clothing, which he will then transport to Venice, where Portia will later join him. After Balthasar leaves, Portia tells Nerissa about their planned secret trip to meet their new husbands, disguised as young men. Though Nerissa is puzzled, Portia promises to explain her motives during their journey to Venice.

act 3 scene 5

Launcelot, fearful for Jessica's spiritual well-being, recites a saying about children inheriting their father's sins. Jessica reassures him that she'll be spiritually safe due to her union with Lorenzo, but Launcelot humorously worries about the impact of Jewish conversions, citing a potential increase in bacon prices since Jews don't consume pork. Lorenzo makes his appearance, scolding Launcelot for making a Moorish servant pregnant. Launcelot responds with a flurry of witty puns before leaving to organize dinner. In a conversation between Jessica and Lorenzo, she praises Portia's near-perfection. In response, Lorenzo jests that he's just as perfect a partner as Portia before guiding them to dinner.

act 4 scene 1

Antonio's trial begins in Venice, with the duke expressing sympathy and denouncing Shylock as a cruel beast. Antonio appears resigned, prepared to face Shylock's fury calmly. Despite the duke's belief that Shylock is only trying to scare Antonio, Shylock insists on his right to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio, as per their contract. Shylock provides no reason for his insistence apart from deep-seated hatred for Antonio. Bassanio tries to negotiate with Shylock but Antonio dismisses his attempts. Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats, double the original loan, but Shylock demands his pound of flesh. When asked how he could expect mercy without showing any, Shylock asserts he hasn't committed a wrong. News arrives of a lawyer, Doctor Bellario, who has sent a young lawyer named Balthasar (actually Portia in disguise) to preside over the case. She enters the scene, confirms her knowledge of the case, and calls Antonio and Shylock forward. She appeals to Shylock for mercy, but he remains unyielding, demanding justice and revenge. Bassanio offers to pay the bond ten times over, but Portia states that the law must be upheld. Shylock is delighted and hands her the bond to inspect, which she finds legal. She asks Antonio to ready himself for the knife. Antonio bids farewell to Bassanio, expressing satisfaction at sacrificing himself for his friend. Bassanio and Gratiano even express willingness to give up their wives to save Antonio, leading to sarcastic comments from the disguised Portia and Nerissa. Just as Shylock is about to cut into Antonio, Portia points out that the bond calls for flesh alone and no blood. If Shylock spills blood, he will be accused of a crime against a Venetian citizen leading to confiscation of his wealth. Shylock agrees to accept thrice his original amount, but Portia insists he must take the flesh or nothing. Shylock tries to drop the case, but Portia holds him accountable for threatening Antonio's life and declares that his wealth will be divided between the state and Antonio. The duke spares Shylock's life and demands only a fine. Shylock agrees to convert to Christianity and leave his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo on his death. Portia, still disguised, declines a dinner invitation from the duke and leaves. Antonio and Bassanio offer her gifts, and reluctantly, Bassanio gives her the ring he swore never to part with at his wife's behest. Antonio and Bassanio then depart to plan their journey to Belmont.

act 4 scene 2

Portia dispatches Nerissa to Shylock's home to guarantee that Shylock signs the deed, transferring his wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica. She notes that Lorenzo will be thrilled to receive this paperwork. The women, disguised, intend to depart for Belmont after this, to outpace their husbands by a day. Gratiano comes in, presents Portia with Bassanio's ring, and proposes a dinner engagement. Portia takes the ring but declines the meal proposal. She instructs Gratiano to guide Nerissa to Shylock's place. Before departing, Nerissa reveals to Portia her intention to persuade Gratiano to surrender his ring. Portia finds this plan agreeable, excitedly anticipating the men's reactions to losing their rings. Nerissa then requests Gratiano to escort her to Shylock's residence.

act 5 scene 1

In a moonlit scene at Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo discuss their love, drawing parallels with celebrated lovers from classical tales. Their conversation is interrupted by a messenger, who informs them that Portia is returning from the monastery. Launcelot enters, revealing that Bassanio will return soon. Lorenzo and Jessica prepare to welcome them, sitting under the stars and enjoying music. Lorenzo reflects on the celestial music of heavenly orbs. Portia and Nerissa approach and hear the music before reaching the estate. Portia is captivated by the night and the illuminated estate, contemplating the influence of context on the value of things. Upon arrival, Portia asks Lorenzo to not disclose her absence to her husband. The sound of trumpets announces the arrival of Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano. Bassanio introduces Portia to Antonio, who shares his acquittal from Venice's courts. A dispute arises between Gratiano and Nerissa concerning a ring he had vowed never to part with. He admits he gave the ring as a payment to a lawyer's clerk, infuriating Portia who states her husband would never do such a thing. Gratiano reveals that Bassanio also gave his ring away to the lawyer who helped Antonio. Portia is devastated, declaring her husband's heart as vacant as his finger. She threatens to withhold her love until Bassanio presents the ring. Bassanio tries to justify his actions, explaining he gave the ring to a deserving man. Portia rebuffs him, suggesting he must have given it to a woman. She threatens to reciprocate his alleged unfaithfulness. Antonio steps in, pledging his soul if either man is unfaithful again. Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands, giving them new rings which the men recognize as their original ones. Portia and Nerissa joke that they slept with the lawyer and clerk to retrieve the rings. They then reveal that they were the lawyer and clerk in disguise. Overjoyed news comes in that Antonio's ships have arrived and Lorenzo will inherit Shylock's wealth. They all celebrate their collective luck.

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