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'.