The Merchant of Venice: by Shakespeare - Summary

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      The Merchant of Venice is a comedy by William Shakespeare, published in Quarto in 1600 as well as in the First Folio of 1623. A main source was a story by Giovanni Fiorentino. The casket episode is from Gesta Romanorum, and Shakespeare may also have had in mind Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and the scandalous contemporary reputation of Roderigo Lopez, a Jewish physician executed in 1594 on suspicion of attempting to poison Queen Elizabeth I.

      The Venetian merchant Antonio, awaiting the return of his ships, is asked for a loan by his young friend Bassanio, who needs the money to pursue his suit of Portia, heiress of Belmont. Without money until his ships return, Antonio borrows from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Shylock, who hates Antonio for his open-handedness (such generosity keeps down the rate of usury in Venice), makes the surprisingly generous offer to accept as a bond for the failure to repay the loan within three months a pound of Antonio’s flesh rather than a high interest. Confident of his ships’ return, Antonio accepts the bond.

      Bassanio wins Portia by choosing the right casket in a test stipulated in Portia’s father’s will, but celebrations of their marriage are interrupted by the news that Antonio’s fleet has foundered, that Shylock has demanded his bond and that the case will be tried before the Duke of Venice. Shylock’s hatred of all Christians has been sharpened by the elopement of his daughter Jessica with Bassanio’s friend, Lorenzo. Represented in court by an unknown advocate and his clerk (Portia and her maid Nerissa in male disguise), Antonio hears Shylock reject Portia’s famous plea for mercy and demand his bond. But Portia triumphantly insists that the bond mentions flesh only, no blood, and the Duke upholds the point. The defeated Shylock is pardoned on condition that he gives half his wealth to Antonio and becomes a Christian.

      The celebrations in Belmont, after Portia and Nerissa have revealed their part in the trial to their husbands, are completed with news that Antonio’s ships have, after all, returned safely.

      The qualities of The Merchant of Venice have been, in some ways, distorted by the theatrical impact of Shylock. For almost two centuries (1680—1880), it was normal to perform the play without its final act, so that the curtain calls could follow Shylock’s final exit. In fact, the play shows Shakespeare’s increasing maturity in the handling of comic form, and is often grouped with A Midsummer Night’s Dream among the middle comedies.

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