The Merchant of Venice

The title page of the first quarto printing of The Merchant of Venice (1600) gives a succinct summary of the plot: ‘The most excellent historie of the merchant of Venice. With the extreame crueltie of Shylocke the Jewe towards the sayd merchant, in cutting a just pound of his flesh: and the obtayning of Portia by the choyse of three chests.’

The merchant Antonio sets the plot in motion by agreeing to lend his friend Bassanio money so that he can woo Portia, a rich and beautiful heiress from Belmont near Venice. In an attempt to protect her from suitors who are only interested in her money, Portia’s father has put a test in place: a choice of three boxes in gold, silver and lead. With some assistance from Portia, Bassanio realises the lead is supposed to be the choice symbolising pure intentions. So they marry, as do Bassanio’s friend Gratiano and Portia’s lady-in-waiting Nerissa.

As Antonio’s own finances depend on the safe return of merchant ships, he is forced to request a loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. Shylock agrees only on the condition that he can take a pound of Antonio’s flesh if he fails to pay by the agreed date. Hearing that Antonio’s ships have been lost, Shylock goes to court in an attempt to extract his dues. But Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer to defend Antonio’s interests. She argues that Shylock is entitled to take the flesh but not to spill a drop of blood. And, as he is effectively planning the murder of a citizen, he should be sentenced to death. The Duke decrees that Shylock can go free if he splits his own wealth between Antonio and the state of Venice, though Antonio is willing to let Shylock keep his half if he converts to Christianity and redrafts his will to include the daughter, Jessica, whom he had disinherited for running away with a Christian. In a financial sense, the arc of comedy is completed when Antonio’s ships reappear. At the same time, Portia and Nerissa successfully engineer a trick with rings that establishes their power over their husbands.


Click here for a short PDF summary of the sources relating to The Merchant of Venice from 'Discovering Literature: Shakespeare'.

Related articles

Questions of Value in The Merchant of Venice

Article by:
Farah Karim-Cooper
Power, politics and religion, Comedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

The valuation of property and people – particularly women – in Shakespeare’s Venice reflects contemporary anxieties nearer home, suggests Farah Karim-Cooper.

Marriage and courtship

Article by:
Eric Rasmussen
Shakespeare’s life and world, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

Eric Rasmussen explains the complex process of getting married in Shakespeare’s England, and the way this worked for young Will himself. He explores the tension, in Shakespeare’s plays, between the old order, in which fathers chose their daughters’ husbands, and the new order based on mutual love, but still plagued by the threat of infidelity.

Daughters in Shakespeare: dreams, duty and defiance

Article by:
Kim Ballard
Tragedies, Gender, sexuality, courtship and marriage

A number of Shakespeare's plays show daughters negotiating the demands of their fathers, often trying to reconcile duty with a desire for independence. Kim Ballard considers five of Shakespeare's most memorable literary daughters: Juliet, Desdemona, Portia, Katherina and Cordelia.

Related collection items

Related people

Related teachers' notes

Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: A Close Reading

Putting The Merchant of Venice in context: a summary of sources

This summary of sources is a quick and easy way to explore the contexts for The Merchant of Venice – from early modern ideas about trade and usury, Venice and Jewish culture to 20th-century productions by both Nazis and Yiddish companies in the shadow of the World War Two.

PDF Download Available

The Merchant of Venice: Exploring Shylock

The Merchant of Venice: Exploring Shylock

Explore different interpretations of Shylock, in the context of myths about Jews in Shakespeare’s England.

PDF Download Available

Related works

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Created by: William Shakespeare

A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens with Theseus, Duke of Athens, eagerly anticipating his marriage to Hippolyta, ...


Created by: William Shakespeare

Coriolanus is a tragedy following the fortunes of Caius Martius: a Roman general distinguished in the field of ...

Doctor Faustus

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Doctor Faustus: plot and character overview Would you sell your soul? And, if you would, for what? Doctor Faustus ...

Edward II

Created by: Christopher Marlowe

Edward II: plot and character overview Outraged by Edward’s elevation of his male favourite Gaveston, ...

View our Shakespeare-inspired range

Shakespeare in Ten Acts

Shakespeare in Ten Acts (paperback)

Ten leading experts take a fresh look at Shakespeare


Shakespeare Desk

Shakespeare Desk Diary 2017

Pictures and quotations to celebrate the life and works of 'the bard'


Shakespeare Star Wars

William Shakespeare's Star Wars

George Lucas's Star Wars retold in the style of the immortal Bard of Avon