The Merchant of Venice simplified


Many centuries ago there was a merchant in Venice named Antonio, and he was wealthy, having made his money successfully trading goods internationally.  Antonio had a friend in Bassanio, and Bassanio had an interest in Portia, “a lady richly left, fairer than that word, and of wondrous virtues.”  Early in the play, Antonio, concerned over the possibility of losing his friend Bassanio to Portia, laments “I know not why I am so sad.”  As he expresses his discontent, Gratiano encourages him to be more up-beat, Gratiano being a friend of both his and Bassanio’s. There in Venice; actually not living in Venice, but rather in the Ghetto, is Shylock, a moneylender.  Being a Jew, Shylock was often denied the civil rights offered gentiles.

Early in the play we learn that Bassanio is most eager to spend more time courting and being with Portia.  But she lives in Belmont, and Bassanio doesn’t have the funds or other means to get there.  It’s a serious issue for him.  Antonio, good friend that he is, suggests Bassanio secure the funds he needs to get to Belmont by negotiating a loan there in Venice, using the prosperous merchant’s good credit as collateral.  Taking advantage of Antonio’s generous offer, Bassanio works out a deal with Shylock, borrowing three thousand ducats for three months. But Shylock, with a dislike for Antonio, justifiably believing Antonio has treated him poorly in the past, has extracted stiff terms. Using this opportunity to perhaps get even with Antonio, Shylock tells Bassanio that the bondholder must “forfeit a pound of his fresh flesh” if the loan is not repaid on the day agreed, Antonio being the bondholder. Bassanio thinks the terms of the loan are a little harsh, but a confident Antonio tells him “fear not, man, I will not forfeit it!”  Bassanio doesn’t think much more about it, excited as he is thinking about getting to Belmont and to being with Portia. 

Meanwhile in Belmont, a worried Portia frets over her near-term future.  She’s consumed with the thought of having to follow the husband-choosing process designed for her by her recently deceased father.  She makes plans to begin a “lottery” that her father “hath devised” for her through his will, lamenting that “the will of a living daughter is curbed by the will of a dead father. I cannot choose one, nor refuse none.” Her gentlewoman Nerissa tries to soothe her saying, “Your father was very virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations.”  The winner of the lottery, the one who wins Portia, will be the one who “chooses his meaning” by choosing the correct chest, which is one of three, a gold, silver or lead chest.  Portia is stressed-out over the steps she has to take to deal with these suitors, but agrees with Nerissa that of all the men in her life, Bassanio “was the best deserving a fair lady.”  The first suitor to arrive in Belmont is the Prince of Morocco.  He has high hopes to be the suitor to win her father’s lottery. She invites him to dinner.

Back in Venice, Lancelet, Shylock’s servant, lets us know that he plans to leave the employ of “the Jew my master.”  Lancelet’s “sandblind” father, Gobbo, enters, not recognizing his son; treated beautifully by the son he can’t quite see.  The two of them talk with Bassanio, encouraging him to employ Lancelet.  He does.  Meanwhile Bassanio’s good friend Gratiano, looking for some adventure, aggressively begs Bassanio to let him accompany him to Belmont.  Bassanio ends up agreeing with the request, but he sets some conditions.  He demands that Gratiano become more urbane in his deportment if he is to join him on this trip to Belmont. Gratiano agrees to give it a good try.  Separately, Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, tells us she plans to leave her father’s household. She gives Lancelet a letter to be delivered to Lorenzo, the young Christian she loves. 

Lancelet delivers Jessica’s letter to Lorenzo. Shylock tells his daughter “I am bid forth to supper, Jessica, there are my keys. Look to my house.”  Just before Shylock leaves for the dinner party, Lancelet whispers to Jessica “Mistress, look out at window for all this there will be a Christian by.”  Right after her father leaves the house, Jessica says to herself “Farewell, and if my fortune be not crossed, I have a father, you a daughter, lost.”  As planned, Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, but not before helping herself to some of her father’s gold coins and jewels.  The dinner party is canceled.  Returning home early, Shylock is beside himself, realizing that his daughter has “stol’n from me a sealed bag of double ducats and two rich and precious jewels” and that she has “fled with a Christian.” 

At about this time Antonio greets Gratiano, telling him that “the wind is come about; Bassanio presently will go aboard.”  Gratiano responds “I am glad on‘t. I desire no more delight than to be under sail and gone tonight.”  Bassanio and Gratiano are soon on their way to Belmont. 

In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco chooses the gold chest, a wrong chest, and exits. As Morocco is leaving, the Prince of Arragon arrives, acknowledging through an oath that if he fails to choose the correct chest he must never unfold to anyone the casket he choose, to never woo a maid in way of marriage, and to immediately leave Portia and be gone.  He chooses the silver chest, also a wrong chest, and leaves.  A messenger enters to tell Portia “a young Venetian is alighted” and that he “has not seen so likely an ambassador of love” and “that a day in April never came so sweet.”  Nerissa squeals “Bassanio, Lord Love, if thy will it be!”

A rumor surfaces in Venice that a Venetian merchant’s ships have gone down in the English Channel. Separately, Shylock learns from Tubal, another moneylender and Shylock’s friend and agent, that Jessica cannot be located, try as they might to find her.  Meanwhile, back in Belmont, Portia is encouraging Bassanio to take his time before making his casket choice.  An impatient and eager Bassanio responds “Let me choose.” He opens the lead casket, the winning casket. He and Portia promptly marry, as do Gratiano and Nerissa.  Giving us a heads-up of what might be to come, Portia warns Bassanio to never lose his wedding ring or give it away.  A shocked Bassanio soon learns from a Venetian messenger that it looks like Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea, and that Shylock plans to enforce his bond.  When wealthy Portia learns the amount of the bond, she says “What, no more?”  Having a plan in mind, she offers to cover it “twenty times over.”  She turns the management of her house over to visiting Lorenzo and Jessica, who having fled Venice have by happenstance found themselves in Belmont.  She tells them that she and Nerissa are going to a monastery.  The clever Portia sends a letter to her cousin, a Doctor Bellario, “a noted jurist in Padua,” the letter requesting that he help her with her plan.  She lets him know that he has to keep her plan a secret. She doesn’t let us know of her plan. She quietly tells Nerissa that “I’ll tell thee all my whole device when I am in my coach.”

Aware that Antonio’s ships may be lost, Shylock seeks to have Antonio’s bond forfeited, causing a court in Venice to convene.  The duke of Venice, Antonio, Bassanio and Gratiano have all now arrived at the courthouse.  Shylock enters and promptly lets all know that he holds firm to his demand “to forfeit on my bond.”  The duke is aware that a Dr. Bellario is scheduled in as counsel to the defense.  He says that he will dismiss the court unless Bellario arrives soon.  A disguised-as-a-law-clerk Nerissa enters to report the Bellario has sent a learned young lawyer, Balthazar, as his substitute, Bellario not being well.  Portia enters, disguised as Balthazar, and is welcomed by the duke.  Balthazar says he is aware of the case and suggests Shylock show more mercy and seek less justice.  In her famous the-quality-of-mercy-is-not-strained speech, she lets him know that he has a very strong case. Shylock doesn’t budge, saying “I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.”  Balthazar essentially says, well, okay, you may take a pound of flesh, but you must take no blood and may take but precisely one pound. Recognizing that he has trapped himself, Shylock says he’ll take the money offered, Bassanio having offered “for thy three thousand ducats here is six.”  The duke tells Shylock essentially, no deal, and tells the court that Antonio is to get one-half of Shylock’s goods; the state the other half.  Antonio suggests a lesser fine.  The duke agrees.  Shylock asks the court “I pray you give me leave to go from hence. I am not well.” The duke does.

Bassanio says to Balthazar that since “I and my friend have by your wisdom been this day acquitted of grievous penalties” we want to give you the “three thousand ducats due unto the Jew.”  Balthazar refuses the offer.  As Balthazar is about to leave, Bassanio cries out “Dear sir, of force I must attempt you further.  Take some remembrance of us as a tribute.  I pray you not to deny me.”  Balthazar says “you press me far, and therefore I will yield.  I’ll take this ring from you. Do not draw back your hand.”  All the while, of course, Balthazar remains a disguised Portia.  A frightened Bassanio says “I will not shame myself to give you this.”  Balthazar responds “I will have nothing else but only this.”  Portia and Nerissa exit.  Antonio persuasively says “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring.”  Bassanio reluctantly consents and gives his ring to Gratiano, saying “Go, Gratiano, run and overtake him.” As Gratiano exits, Bassanio says to Antonio “in the morning early will we both fly toward Belmont.”  Gratiano chases her down and gives her the ring.  Portia says “His ring I do accept most thankfully, and so pray you tell him.” Aside, Nerissa says to Portia “I’ll see if I can get my husband’s ring, which I did make him swear to keep forever.”  Nerissa gets her husband’s ring.

Back in Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica greet Portia and Nerissa as they return.  Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio arrive a little later.  Nerissa promptly takes Gratiano aside to express her displeasure, noting that his ring is missing. Portia scolds Gratiano and then turns to Bassanio, and as smooth as can be asks him about his missing ring. Bassanio desperately tries to explain and apologize his way out of his serious predicament.  Accepting responsibility, Antonio steps-in saying I am “th’ unhappy subject of these quarrels.” Portia says, “Sir, grieve not you.”  Antonio profusely apologizes for the misunderstanding, saying to her “your lord will never more break faith advisedly.”  She gives Antonio the ring saying “Then you shall be his surety. Give him this ring. And bid him keep it better than the other.”  Nerissa returns Gratiano’s ring to him.  Portia describes the ruse.  Portia shows Antonio a paper that lets him know his ships have in fact safely arrived back in Venice.  Nerissa shows Lorenzo a paper from Shylock deeding all his possessions at his death to Jessica and him.  Gratiano vows to take better care of his ring. 

Principal Characters

Antonio.  Antonio is the merchant who risks all to help his friend, Bassanio.  Bassanio borrows money using Antonio’s good credit.  Antonio’s ships are the basis for his good credit, and it is reported they’ve been lost at sea. The possible loss of his ships is central to the play.  At the end we learn that his ships have safely returned.

Bassanio.  Bassanio is by all accounts a fine young man and a very eligible bachelor.  His interest in seeing Portia, then winning her, and then almost losing her, is the play’s central theme.  Portia, in disguise as a “young lawyer of Rome,” whom the revered Bellario had described in his letter to the court as “the greatness whereof I cannot enough commend,” is in disguise the “young lawyer of Rome,” Balthazar, who becomes the defense attorney who saves Antonio’s life from the high-risk deal Bassanio had made early-on with Shylock on his behalf.

Gratiano. Gratiano is by early accounts a rowdy playboy, but changes his behavior at the insistence of Bassanio. Gratiano ends up with Nerissa, becoming a loyal husband and a reliable friend to Bassanio.

Jessica.  Jessica is Shylock’s daughter, his only child, who runs off with a Christian, Lorenzo, after taking some of her father’s gold and jewels.  She doesn’t have a big role, but comes to peace with her father who ends up willing her and her husband all of his possessions.

Lancelet.  Lancelet has a small role, first as Shylock’s servant and then as a servant to Bassanio.

Lorenzo.  Lorenzo is the Christian who marries Jessica, running off with her to Belmont, where he and Jessica act as managers of Portia’s estate while Portia is off defending (in disguise) Antonio against Shylock’s effort to extract his “pound of flesh.” 

Nerissa.  Nerissa is Portia’s waiting-gentlewoman; she is Portia’s loyal assistant as Portia acts out her clever chicanery.  She marries Gratiano. 

Portia.  Portia is the beautiful, wise, wealthy, talented and virtuous heroine of the play, Shakespeare giving her perhaps his best female role.  She is the lead and makes the play.  She is wonderful. 

Shylock.   Shylock is the antagonist, a wealthy moneylender, used by Shakespeare to help make the play.  Jews were discriminated against in early Venice; Venice being at the time the world’s major center for trade, and Shakespeare lets us count the ways.  As a Jew, Shylock would have been denied citizenship in Venice.  He lived in a suburb known as the Ghetto.  He has one child, a daughter, Jessica.

The Play