The Merchant of Venice

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A Summary of The Merchant of Venice

This Shakespearean comedy play is set in Venice and Belmont and starts with two of the lead characters of Antonio, a wealthy Christian merchant and his friend Bassanio, an aristocrat who has squandered all of his money. Bassanio asks Antonio for a loan in order to woo the third main character, Portia the wealthy heiress of Belmont. As Antonio’s wealth is all tied up at sea he cannot give Bassanio a direct loan, but agrees to be a guarantor for him, if Bassanio can get a loan from some-one else instead. Bassanio finds a Jewish moneylender called Shylock and persuades him to a loan of three thousand ducats. Antonio signs the contract, which demands a pound of his flesh from him instead of any interest if Bassanio cannot pay the loan back in time. Antonio agrees to it thinking it not to be a serious threat. Bassanio takes the money and leaves Venice for Belmont in order to pursue Portia. Her father has set all her suitors a challenge to choose one casket out of three that contains her picture. That suitor will then be free to marry her with her father’s blessing. The caskets are each made of gold, silver and lead. Prince of Morocco picks the gold casket which has a skull in it depicting corruption and has an inscription in it reading ‘what every man desires’. The famous line is said here of ‘All that glitters is not Gold’. Then Prince of Arragon chooses the silver casket which says that ‘ a man will get what he deserves’ and it has a picture of an idiot showing him that he is foolish and self-centred. They both lose the challenge and leave in shame. Meanwhile in Venice Shylock’s daughter Jessica has fallen in love with Antonio’s friend Lorenzo also a Christian and they run away together with her dressed as a boy and with a large amount of her father’s money and jewels. Upon hearing this Shylock blames Lorenzo and is furious as he loathes Antonio who has insulted him repeatedly. He also hears rumours that Antonio’s ships have been lost or sunk in the sea and that he feels he is now not going to get his money back and wants his pound of Antonio’s flesh again as he loathes him because Antonio has been anti-Semitic and badmouthing him around Venice about how Shylocks interests are very high. Bassanio is recognised by Portia as the soldier she fell in love with and he by chance chooses the lead casket with her picture in it and they are engaged to be married the next day. A messenger gives Bassanio a letter telling him that Antonio has lost all his money and must honour his contract with a pound of his flesh. Portia sends Bassanio with double the money for Shylock in order to cancel the contract by paying off his debt. Portia and her maid follow behind both disguised as men. Shylock arrests Antonio and takes him to Duke of Venice who takes the matter to court. The Duke asks Shylock to have mercy on Antonio and let him go, but he refuses. As Balthazar i.e. Portia as a lawyer intervenes and points to some flaws in the contract. A typical Shakespearean heroine. Here Portia has the most lines as Balthazar. Shylock is cornered and gives up his wealth to his daughter and agrees to convert to Christianity and pardons Antonio the debt. Antonio’s fleet returns home safely after all. The truth is revealed about Portia as Balthazar and the three couples; Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica and Nerissa and Graziano are reunited and celebrate at the end of the play.

The Breakdown of the Play

Act by act

Scene by scene

The above diagrams are called concordance graphs and were created using a computer programme called Antconc. They serve to indicate the way the play is divided into acts and how these acts in turn are divided into scenes. They can illuminate where the most important sections occur within a play. This can be seen by the size of the act and number of scenes in the act. Typically the ending of one scene and the beginning of another indicates the changing of view points from character to character. With that being understood we can see that acts 3 and 4 contain the most scenes therefore contain the greatest scope for the play. (Though not necessarily the best scenes or most action)

Using the computer programme Wordhoard we produced the cloud diagram seen below. It shows the words that were used most frequently within the course of the text with the size of the words indicating the frequency of their use in the play:

The most used words relate to the prevalent themes found within the text which include:-

  • Vengeance
  • Love
  • Friendship
  • Mercy
  • Religion

Why do you think these are the most important themes?

Character List and brief description


One of Shakespeare’s more memorable characters, Shylock is a character which feels he is justified for his religious fuelled rage at the Christians for how they have treated him and his fellow jews. Though from the perspective of the rest of the characters within the play he can be seen as a monster he has been shown to be quite human due to his motivations. A jewish money lender who charges large sums of interest in order to be seen in a equateable light to his Christian contemporaries is instead looked down on by those same people for what they view as poor business practices. Furthermore it is highlighted that Shylock as a character is viewed as bitter and prone to anger which affected his life at home as well with his daughter, Jessica until she leaves.


Antonio as a character cannot be easily nailed down. While the play essentially revolves around him putting himself in danger for the benefit of his friend, Bassanio, it should be remembered that Antonio’s treatment of Shylock and the jewish people is also at fault. Like Shylock, Antonio is a character comprised of both positive and negative elements, Antonio adhering to his religion delivers forgiveness to Shylock after conditions are met. While Shylock is viewed negatively Antonio is referenced as being well liked often, this being shown particularly at the trial with the number of individuals coming to his defense.


Friend to Antonio and the eventual husband of Portia, Bassanio is the key factor of the play which ties the various stories of the Merchant of Venice together. His desire for Portia led him to ask for monetary aid from Antonio and necessitates the events of the play. Just as Antonio proves himself to be a good friend and kinsman to Bassanio so too does Bassanio. This can be highlighted both during the events of the deal at the start where he implores Antonio not to agree to the forfeit and later during the trial when he offers to pay whatever is needed to save his friend.


Friend to both Antonio and Bassanio, Lorenzo is in love with Jessica, the daughter of Shylock. With Lorenzo’s help Jessica successfully escapes the home of her father and elopes to Belmont to live out a new life both with the money she taken from her father and the money she will eventually inherit.


The love of Bassanio, Portia is a wealthy heiress residing in Belmont. While her beauty is unparalleled within the dimensions of the play her intelligence is just as prominent. Due to her father’s will she was bound by a clause to only marry whoever chose correctly from three caskets. Nonetheless Portia still gets to marry her love, Bassanio, who chooses correctly.

Balthazar (Portia’s disguise)

In the guise of Balthazar, a young doctor of the law, Portia is able to demonstrate that she is the most clever character within the play twice over. Initially she succeeds in fooling all present during the trial through the use of her disguise and more prominently succeeds in saving Antonio from Shylock’s revenge.


Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidente, Nerissa marries Gratiano at the same time as Portia marries Bassanio. Nerissa also acts as escort for Portia on her trip to Venice and aids in the saving of Antonio by posing as law clerk to Portia.


Friend to Bassanio, Gratiano accompanies him to Belmont where he falls in love with and eventually marries Nerissa. During the trial Gratiano is the most vocal opposition to Shylock’s demand for Antonio’s pound of flesh.


Daughter of Shylock, Jessica is seen as a woman caught in the middle between the jewish and christian elements. Her life is made difficult by her father as such she seeks to leave her home and elopes with Lorenzo. Marrying him it is stated that she converts from the jewish faith to christian which leaves us to question how she is viewed by her new christian counterparts.


Shylock’s servant, Launcelot severs his ties to him in favour of Bassanio. While his life was made difficult being a servant to Jewish moneylender when he is in fact christian he poses as the comedic element of the play. Furthermore it is this attitude which Jessica describes as helping her cope with her time at her father’s house.

Shakespeare contrasts the main characters Shylock and Antonio to represent these key ideas within The Merchant of Venice. He presents the two characters as conflicting opposites and personifies the juxtaposed themes of this play; justice and mercy, forgiveness and revenge.

Forgiveness and Revenge

Revenge as a concept is one of the few that is central to Shakespeare’s work and a good story in general. Revenge as a noun occurs four times in the Merchant of Venice. As a verb it occurs only once yet overall as a verb it occurs in 28 out of the 42 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Points scored

Shylock is portrayed primarily as the aggressor, seeking from Antonio what he believes to be justice but to others it would be viewed he is seeking revenge for the Jewish people.

As a verb forgive occurs through Shakespeare’s work for a total of 83 times. Within Merchant of Venice it occurs as a verb four times. Once each by Portia, Shylock, Duke and Bassanio. Forgave occurs once from Lorenzo. Therefore the contrasting themes are presented equally within the play Merchant of Venice. The following words are related to the subject of forgiveness to set a parallel between what is more common within Shakespeare’s work.

Points scored

Forget occurs twice in Merchant of Venice coming both from Shylock. This is interesting as it comes at the start of the play in which Shylock convinces Antonio to make the bargain with him in Act 1, Scene 3. This is crucial as it juxtapositions the end of the play in which Shylock refuses to let go of his grievance to his near fatal detriment. Revenge (n) occurs in a cluster within Merchant of Venice whereas forgive (v) occurs sporadically throughout. “If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.” This quote shows that Shylock has power to change the way that people think. Shakespeare has portrayed this using rhetorical questions to be ironic and to state the obvious, he has also used repetition of the word “revenge” to highlight one of the themes of this.

Mercy and Justice

According to the figure given by Antconc, the word “mercy” is used thirteen times, mostly in the end of the play, due to the famous quote from Portia - “the quality of mercy”. It occurs during Act IV, Scene 1, set in a Venetian Court of Justice: Portia tries to beg Shylock for mercy.

Figure: the times “mercy” being used in the Merchant of Venice

According to Doloff (2009), the English word “mercy” can be traced from the Latin root “merces”, a noun donating “price” or “payment”. A related group of other cognates with “mercy” also is deployed by Shakespeare in the play: “mercenary” (4.1.416), “merchandise” (1.1.40, 1.1.45, 3.1.120) and “merchant” (which occur 12 times in the play).

Hence from the perspective of etymology, Portia's disquisition on the iterated word "mercy" and its moral superiority over Shylock's demanded "justice" lies the wonderful irony, mercenary Latin meaning of "price" to its transcendent Christian meaning of charitable forbearance (Doloff, 2009). Besides, it can be noted that the association of “mercy/merces” in the Merchant of Venice may also be further linked with the word “render”, which occurs in the “mercy” speech and twice more elsewhere in the same scene:

"How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?" (4.1.88)

"And that same prayer, doth teach us all to render

The deeds of mercy ..." (4.1.199-200)

"What mercy can you render him, Antonio?" (4.1.376)

Although in Shakespeare’s other plays, he used the verb “render” to mean “requite” or “hand over” and also sometimes “describe”, he at least three times evoked the word’s financial connotations of to “pay”. Therefore, is the triple “rendering” of “mercy” in the Merchant of Venice a kind of hint of the latter term’s mercantile root?

Moreover, the play also presents anti-semitic ideas, depicting Shylock, a Jew, as evil and Antonio, a Christian, as good. Stereotyping in this play is used to portray Shylock as malicious, selfish and hateful man who only cares about money. Antonio, on the other hand, is portrayed as the 'perfect Christian'; merciful and kind. Shylock only appears in a couple of scenes in the play, but the audience can gather an opinion of him by the way the other characters on stage talk about him. Shylock appears to be disliked by those who are closest to him, for example his daughter, Jessica (in act 2). This is one of the reasons the audience see him as the evil character. On the other hand, Antonio appears to the audience as a very merciful man. When he does not appear in a scene, those closest to him talk about him highly emphasising his good features, this makes Antonio appear in a better light than Shylock. Every time Shylock is talked about or seen by the Elizabethan audience in a bad manner, consequently, Antonio's good qualities are emphasised.

Religion in the Merchant of Venice

Judaism and Christianity appear as seemingly rival religions. Shakespeare portrays this using the two main characters Shylock and Antonio. It could be said that Shakespeare uses Antonio to represent Christianity where Shylock is seen to represent Judaism. We are first introduced to the idea that they are rivals in Act one, Scene 3. Shylock says:

This quote identifies that the theme of hatred is personified using religious intolerance. Shylock's hatred for Antonio is based solely on his religion and the treatment he receives because of his. The themes hatred and religion are closely linked as can be seen from the quote above.

The word ‘Jew’ appears more times than the words Christian and Christianity combined. This, at first glance isn’t unusual considering one of the main character is a Jew. What was interesting, however, was not just how the play focuses more on Judaism rather than Christianity- which was the dominating religion in Europe at the time- but why this may be.

The words Christianity and Jew appears more frequently in the Merchant of Venice than any other Shakespeare play. Figures 1 and 2 draw your attention to religion showing its overall importance to the play as a whole.

Figure 1- ‘Christian’

Figure 2- 'Jew'

‘Christian’ was only said a total of 22 times whereas ‘Jew’ was repeated 70 times in the overall play. This is interesting because the word ‘jew’ is only said across only 7 Shakespeare plays in total. Using these figures, religion can clearly be seen as significant to the over all text.

So what was its role in the play?

Critics have argued that the way Shylock is presented in the play is anti- semitic. ‘One would have to be blind, deaf, and dumb not to recognize that Shakespeare's grand, equivocal comedy The Merchant of Venice is nevertheless a profoundly anti-Semitic work’ (Riga 2010) It has been argued that this was deliberate and that Shakespeare was trying to criticize society's prejudice and encourage religious tolerance. On the other hand, Bradizza argues that Shakespeare wrote this play with the intent to please and entertain hence why it is considered a ‘comedy’ and that we should assume ‘that Shakespeare shared the prejudices of his audience’(Bradizza 2014, p.183).

While its deliberence is debated there is, however, no debate that anti-Semitism is demonstrated through the character of Antonio. He views himself and his religion superior than that of Shylocks. It can be seen in Act 1 Scene 3 when Shylock confronts Antonio for spitting on his gabardine. Antonio compares him to an animal calling him a 'dog'. In doing this it implies that Shylock is inferior to himself and that because of his religion he is animal like. Antonio not only does not deny that he spat on him but says:

‘Missbeliever, cut- throat, dog’ (1.3.107)

The lack of remorse and an apology furthers this idea that he justifies his actions because of Shylock’s religion. It can also be seen when it is said that if a Jew were to convert to Christianity ‘it would raise the price of pork’. (3.5.35) One could argue that Jessica is saying; they are worth less if they are Jewish but if they were to convert then they are worth more. On the other hand, it could literally mean that if everyone were to convert to Christianity, the price of pork would increase. Either way the way the characters treat Jewish people and their religion is as if their own is superior.

Furthermore, characters themselves are rarely identified by name but rather religious identity. While Shylock does refer to Antonio as ‘The Christian’, Shylock is called by his religious identify more frequently and by multiple characters in the text. The graph below shows how many times each character says the word ‘jew’.

The religious conflict within the novel is projected using Antonio and Shylock, however, the word ‘Jew’ was said more frequently by Launcelot, Portia and Gratiano. More frequently than both characters. Launcelot too exhibits anti- semitic behaviour which can be seen in the second act. He is debating whether or not he should seek a new employer solely on the fact that he works for Shylock who is Jewish. He ends up choosing to run away from him rather than continue working for someone of a different faith than his own. Not only does he refer to Shylock as the devil but says, "I am a Jew if I serve the Jew any longer" (2.2.104).

The image below shows words most frequently used around ‘jew’ within the text starting with the most frequent to the least.

The fact that ‘rich’ appears frequently near the word ‘jew’ is important to note as it highlights the importance of money within the play. It could be said that the attitudes towards wealth is a way to distinguish the Jewish and Christian characters. Shylock, as said previously, is portrayed at the villian who is a money lender. It has been suggested that Shakespeare is calling this stereotype into question. However, it becomes clear that money is used to pit the two religions against one another.

It can be seen that the word ‘the’ is used most frequently then followed by ‘rich’. Firstly, this demonstrates that fact that he is being singled out. He isn’t ‘a jew’ he is ‘the jew’. It therefore creates this idea of isolation. It is also important as it again highlights that he is referred to as ‘ the jew’ therefore is identified by his religious identity.

Religion and Isolation:

It is clear that due to their religion characters within the text feel isolated. This can be seen predominantly with Jessica.

I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so.

Our house is hell and thou, a merry devil,

Didst rob it of some taste of tediousness.

But fare thee well. There is a ducat for thee,

And, Lancelet, soon at supper shalt thou see

Lorenzo, who is thy new master's guest.

Give him this letter, do it secretly.

And so farewell. I would not have my father

See me in talk with thee. (2.3.1-9)

In Act 2 Scene 3 Jessica is seen to be ashamed of her father and that they do not share the same beliefs. Jessica, you could argue, feels isolated in her own home. She lives with her jewish father and does notfeel like she belongs. She eventually converts to Christianity but has to live with the fact she will never truly belong because she was Jewish by birth.

Jessica demonises her father by comparing his house to hell .The comment ‘merry devil’ is in reference to Lancelet making Jessica’s home life more bearable. The use of devil and hell so closely linked could instead be a reference to Lancelet being intrinsic to her home life as a hell is nothing without its devils.

By abandoning her father, Jessica serves as a function to isolate Shylock as a character. It is clear in Act One that isolation is a recurring theme. Shylock says:

I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you. (1.3.9)

This demonstrates further that he feels isolated from Christian society. This is important to note as it shows that characters- because of religious estrangement- feel isolated.

Isolation can be seen also using character relationships. For example the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. Therefore, isolation it seems, is an important theme within the text that closely links with religion.

So ask yourself this: do you think isolation is self-imposed in the play and do you think shakespeare want us to perceive it as this?

Love and Friendship

Keyword 1: Love

In Shakespeare’s comedies, LOVE is usually considered as a main theme (Pawar, 2017). In the Merchant of Venice, there are three couples: Bassanio and Portia (the major one), Gratiano and Nerissa, and Jessica and Lorenzo. The word ‘love’ is mentioned 60 times in the text (see figure 4), and there are more than twenty times belonging to the major couple Bassanio and Portia. However, it can be noted that the frequency of speaking or expressing ‘love’ might be associated with the characters’ family background and their social status.

Figure 4: the times of ‘love’ being mentioned in the Merchant of Venice

The statistics (see figure 5) illustrates that Portia mentions ‘love’ fifteen times in the play, which is almost twice as Bassanio (8 times). The gap between Bassanio and Portia might is due to their different family backgrounds: Portia was born in a wealthy family, whereas Bassanio does not have enough money to hold the wedding for Portia. Moreover, the subordinate couple Gratiano and Nerissa has the similar situation: Nerissa is the maid of Portia, which means her social status is slightly lower than Gratiano, and the data shows that Gratiano mentions ‘love’ four times as Nerissa (2 times). Thus, in the Merchant of Venice, it can be concluded that the character who is wealthier or has higher social status probably expresses ‘love’ more than those who are in the lower class -

figure 5: the times of ‘love’ being mentioned by different characters in the play.

So here comes an interesting question: why Portia chooses Bassanio instead of Prince of Aragon and Prince of Morocco who are much wealthier and have better family background? The first reason might be Shakespeare often uses the technique of ‘love at first sight’ in his works (Pawar, 2017), no exception in Bassanio and Portia. However, more importantly, Shakespeare is considered revolutionary in terms of creating female characters (Pawar, 2017). In the 16^th^ century, western women usually had limited rights. For instance, they did not have rights to vote. As Portia lives in a wealthy family, she has to follow her father’s will, but in the casket scene as well as the court scene, the characteristics of Portia is portrayed as an emancipated, intelligent and confident figure (Pawar, 2017).

Key Word 2: Fair

Figure 6: the times of characters mentioning “FAIR”

In most cases, the adjective ‘beautiful’ is frequently used if people want to describe someone as good-looking. However, the word “beautiful” only occurs one time in the text, whereas the word “fair” is mentioned thirty-five times (see Figure 6). Typically, Bassanio mentions “fair” eight times, Lorenzo eight times, and Gratiano four times. In fact, Shakespeare also uses quite a lot of “fair” in his other literary works, such as Love’s Labor’s Lost (56 times) and Troilus and Cressida (49 times).

Figure 7: the percentage that each character speaking the word “fair”.

Therefore, it is interesting to see why Shakespeare uses “fair” instead of “beautiful” to describe female characters’ appearance. According to Whitefield-Madrano (2011), the word “fair” comes from old English “faeger”, which means “beautiful, lovely, and pleasant”. Until the 1550s, the word “fair” was used to describe a good-looking or attractive person without regard to the color spectrum, and meanwhile, with not much regard to sex. Whitefield-Madrano (2011) also states that in the Elizabethan era, Shakespeare uses “fair” that sticks with its original meaning.

Key Word 3: Ring

Figure 8: the times that characters mention the word “RING”.

“Ring” can be considered as an important symbol of love and commitment in the Merchant of Venice. The word “ring” is mentioned forty six times in the text (see figure 8). According to the statistics, Bassanio mentions “ring” fourteen times and Portia mentions it thirteen times, which makes them become the major contributors of speaking “ring” (see figure 9).

Figure 9: the percentage of each character speaking “RING”

From the figure given by Antconc, the word “ring” is mostly mentioned at the end of the play, which is significantly related to the plot that Portia gives Bassanio the ring along with her vows and inheritance. She says she gives all of her wealth to her soon-tsatto-be husband and tells Bassanio should always wear the ring or she will reclaim her wealth: “I give them with this ring/ which when you part from, lose or give away/ let it presage the ruin of your love/ and be my vantage to exclaim on you” (III.ii.175-178).

As a reply, Bassanio vows that “but when this ring/ parts from this finger, then parts life from hence/ O, then be bold to say, Bassanio’s dead” (III.ii.187-189). However, dramatically, when Portia steals her servant’s name “Balthazar” and disguises as a lawyer on the court, she asks Bassanio into giving the ring as appreciation for saving Antonio’s life. Although Bassanio resists this decision initially, he still bestows his ring to “Balthazar”. That’s why Portia chastises Bassanio for not understanding his worth and the meaning of the ring: “If you have known the virtue of the ring/ or half her worthiness that gave the ring/ or your own honor to contain the ring” (V.i. 199-201). The ring represents the moral relationship of love instead of financial union or business contract, which Bassanio fails to understand (Trepanier, 2014).

Love vs. Friendship?

Another crucial theme related to human’s relationship in the Merchant of Venice is friendship. According to the statistics given by Antconc (figure 10), the word “friend” and “friends” are mentioned thirty-eight times in total.

Figure 10: the times that characters mention “friend” or “friends”

In the play, the friendship between Antonio and Bassanio could be an interesting point to discuss. From the figure below, it is not strange to see that Bassanio is the person who mentions “friend” or “friends” most (twelve times in total, accounting for one third of the total times that other characters mention “friend” or “friends”) probably because he needs money to prepare his wedding with Portia and also he needs friends to help him.

Figure 11: the percentage of characters speaking “friend” or “friends”

Although Antonio mentions only five times of the word “friend”, it cannot be denied that friendship is important for him. The evidence is that Antonio calls Bassanio’s name nine times in the play, which is two more times than Bassanio’s fiancée Portia.

Figure 12: the times that each character speaking “Bassanio”

At the beginning of the Merchant of Venice, Antonio expresses his sadness: “in sooth, I know not why I am so sad.” According to Trepanier’s (2014) analysis, Antonio is sad because he desires a meaningful relationship that is rooted in non-contractual value, rather than utility or financial profit. However, Antonio also realizes that such an idealized relationship is hardly possible in the commercial republic of Venice – his experience in business has trained him to view relationships in contractual ways.

As a successful merchant, Antonio is self-disciplined and is good at weighing benefits against threats, but in the meantime, he lacks a non-contractual relationship that is based on moral values (Trepanier, 2014). Due to his inexperience in this realm, Antonio fails to form a non-profit friendship with Bassanio because he wrongly understands the material for the moral.

Is marriage superior to friendship in the Merchant of Venice? The answer might be positive. Antonio is always alone no matter in the beginning or at the end of the play, and his friendship with Bassanio has become subordinate to Bassanio and Portia’s marriage.

However, we cannot draw a conclusion that friendship weighs less than love in Bassanio’s heart. There is little doubt that Antonio gives Bassanio a big favor, and Bassanio might not be able to marry Portia without Antonio’s financial support. Besides, based on the tables below, Bassanio calls Antonio’s name nine times, whereas “Portia” is only mentioned six times by Bassanio. Although Bassanio sometimes calls Portia by using other phrases such as “fair lady”, it cannot be ignored that Bassanio still considers Antonio as an important person in his life.

Figure: the times that each character calls Antonio and Portia’s names.