A Complete Summary
The merchant of Venice is Antonio, a rich man who has sea ventures in all parts of the world. At the time that the play begins almost all of his money is invested in boats which are now returning to their home port, loaded with goods that he can sell. Needless to say Antonio is worried about the success of his ventures:
“Should I go to church, And see the holy edifice of stone, And not bethink me straight of dangerous rocks, Which, touching but my gentle vessel's side, Would scatter all her spices on the stream, Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks, And, in a word, but even now worth this, And now worth nothing?”
But Antonio is also a kind man who values his friends and desires to help them in whatever way possible. When his friend Bassanio comes to him, desiring to borrow three thousand ducats to go woo the beautiful heiress Portia, Antonio wants to give him the money. But until his ships return, he does not have three thousand spare ducats to lend. Instead of letting this stop him, Antonio without hesitation lets Bassanio use his name as credit to borrow three thousand ducats from Shylock. Shylock is a stereotypical Jew: greedy for money, and out to harm “Christians” in any way that he can. When Shylock gives the money to Bassanio he adds an dangerous condition to the bond. If Bassanio and Antonio are unable to repay the money before the bond expires, then Shylock can exact payment by taking a pound of flesh from whatever part of Antonio's body he wants. Antonio and Bassanio agree to this condition, and Bassanio and his friend Gratiano leave Venice on a mission of romance.
Meanwhile the beautiful Portia awaits suitors, with her waiting maid Nerissa. Before any man can approach Portia, however, he must pass a unusual test devised by her father just before his death. It consists of three chests: one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. The golden chest bears the inscription: “Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” The silver chest promises “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” The lead chest is marked: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” One of the chests contains a portrait of Portia, and this is the one that allows a man to marry her.
While Bassanio travels to meet Portia and take this critical test, momentous events are taking place back in Venice. Shylock's daughter Jessica has fallen in love with Lorenzo, a young dandy who promises to elope with her. When Jessica leaves Venice with Lorenzo she takes two gemstones and a considerable number of ducats that belong to her father. When Shylock discovers the loss he is thunderstruck. His true character is revealed as he voices his outrage: “I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear! would she were hearsed at my foot, and the ducats in her coffin!” In his anger Shylock promises to reap his revenge if Antonio fails to repay the three thousand ducats.
Meanwhile Bassanio is at Portia's estate, considering the three chests that he must choose from. Bassanio chooses to “give and hazard all he hath” by selecting the lead chest and wins the hand of Portia. At the same time Nerissa and Gratiano fall in love. A double marriage results, but their combined jubilation is short lived, for Bassiano receives a message from Antonio:
“Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit; and since, in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I, if I might but see you at my death.”
Shylock has cruelly chosen to get his revenge using the bond by taking his pound of flesh from the area closest to Antonio's heart. Portia gives Bassanio six thousand ducats to repay his loan, and Bassiano and Gratiano travel back to Venice to save Antonio's life. But, on arriving they find that Shylock refuses to take payment except in flesh. He is determined to take Antonio's life and the situation seems very grim indeed.
At the very last moment Portia and Nerissa, disguised as a officials, enter the court and deliver an innovative piece of reasoning that completely turns the tables:
“This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood; The words expressly are a pound of flesh; Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh; But, in the cutting, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian blood, thy land and goods Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate Unto the state of Venice... ...The law hath yet another hold on you. It is enacted in the laws of Venice,- If it be prov'd against an alien, That by direct or indirect attempts He seek the life of any citizen, The party 'gainst the which he doth contrive Shall seize one half his goods; the other half Comes to the privy coffer of the state.”
Needless to say, Shylock is utterly debased, and his fortune is redistributed: half to Antonio, and the other half given to Lorenzo and Jessica. On top of that, three of Antonio's ships come safely to harbor, proving wrong the reports that they had sunk.
The play concludes with a humorous scene that involves Bassiano and Portia, and Gratiano and Nerissa. While disguised as court officials the two wives tricked their husbands completely, and they did not even realize who it was that saved Antonio's life. In disguise Portia and Nerissa ask that the men give them their rings out of gratitude, and the men comply. Later, they confront the men and ask them what happened to the rings. After teasing and tormenting the men for their unfaithfulness they reveal that they were the ones who saved Antonio's life.
The play concludes with Gratiano's statement:
“Well, while I live, I'll fear no other thing So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.”
The overall theme of Shakespeare's “The Merchant of Venice” can be summarized by the inscriptions on the three chests used to test Portia's suitors:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.” “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
“The Merchant of Venice” is all about how the characters must be willing to give and hazard all they have. Shylock chooses silver and gold as more important than forgiveness and reasonableness. As a result he gets exactly what he deserves. On the other hand, Antonio and Bassanio, who are willing to hazard all they have, benefit in the end.
William Shakespeare's play also shows that sometimes the most obvious path, what many men desire, is not the most beneficial. It is the seemingly dull things, like lead, that can be the most rewarding.
If you want to read one of William Shakespeare's plays, “The Merchant of Venice” is a wonderful choice. Although the archaic language used was sometimes a little difficult to understand, I felt that “The Merchant of Venice” was truly spectacular. The complicated plot twists, the use of foreshadowing, and the encompassing theme make it very enjoyable to read.