The Merchant of Venice Analysis, Summary, and Themes: William Shakespeare

Read our complete study guide on the play “The Merchant of Venice” by William Shakespeare. Our study guide covers The Merchant of Venice analysis, summary, themes, and characters.

The Merchant of Venice Introduction:

William Shakespeare, the world’s pre-eminent dramatist or playwright and the renowned poet, was born in 1564, in Stratford. During the Elizabethan ages of theatre, he was one of the creative writers. His plays, no doubt, are his everlasting heritage, however, plays are not the only thing he wrote; his poetry is also renowned to this day. He wrote almost 38 plays, 154 sonnets and 2 narrative poems along with some other poems. His plays were published by his colleagues after his death and that too was not original manuscripts. Shakespeare’s heritage is as amusing and varied as his work; his dramas have deposited numerous alterations through several genres and ethos; moreover, his plays have had an everlasting manifestation on stage and big screen. He died in 1616.

Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” is supposed to be written in between 1596 to 1599. This play is classified as a comedy in the 1st Folio. It also shares certain aspect with Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. The plot of the play centered on love, money, biases, and social injustices. The main characters of the play are Antonio (the merchant of Venice), Portia, Shylock, and Jessica. Other characters include Bassanio, Gratiano, Lorenzo, Nerissa, and so on.

The Merchant of Venice Summary:

The play starts with the Bassanio, a young, nobleman, who wishes to marry a wealthy and beautiful lady Portia, the heiress of Belmont. Bassanio needs a loan of 3000 ducats to sponsor his marriage. He approaches a friend Antonio, a rich merchant of Venice. Antonia promises to give him a loan, however, he was short of money since all his ships and merchandise are invested at the sea to Tripolis. Bassanio, on the advice of Antonia, finds a Jewish moneylender Shylock and mention Antonia as money’s guarantor. Antonia had already upset Shylock by outspoken prejudice to Jews while on the other hand, Shylock was also familiar with Antonia’s habit to lend money without interest that may force him (Shylock) to charge low rates. At first, Shylock refuses to grant the money to Bassanio, mentioning the mistreatment he suffered from Antonia’s hand. However, he agrees to lend the loan without interest with a condition that is if Antonia doesn’t repay or is not able to repay his loan with a fixed duration, Shylock will exact a pound of Antonia’s flesh. Antonio, being confident that his ships will return at the time, accepts the offer.

Bassanio, with his friend Gratiano, leaves for Belmont with money in his hands. Gratiano is a young man often over talkative and thoughtless. In the meantime, in the Belmont, Portia is provided with the suitors from her father. Her father left a will for the suitors to choose correct basket from the three baskets- gold, silver, and lead. Each basket has a slogan with hidden meaning. If anyone of them picks the right basket, he would marry Portia. The Prince of Morocco, the 1st suitor, decides on the gold basket while the Prince of Aragon, the second suitor, decides on the silver basket. Both of them leave unsuccessful. The last suitor was Bassanio, whom the Portia also wishes to succeed. Bassanio decides on the lead basket and succeeds in marrying Portia.

At Venice, Antonio is reported about the lost ships in the sea. In such circumstances, Antonio is unable to repay the debt. While on the other side, Shylock turns out to be more determined to avenge the Christians since his daughter Jessica escaped with a Christian man Lorenzo and converted to Christianity. After the completion of fixed time, Shylock brings Antonio before the court.

Shortly after the marriage of Bassanio with Portia and his friend Gratiano with Portia’s handmaid Nerrisa, Bassanio receives a letter that Antonio is unable to repay the Shylock’s loan. Bassanio immediately leaves for Venice to save Antonio’s life with the money from Portia. Portia follows Bassanio with her maid Nerrisa and disguised as the male lawyer and the clerk.

In the court of Duke of Venice, Shylock declines Bassanio’s offer of double payment of loan i.e. 6000 ducats and demanded the pound of Antonio’s flesh. The Duke wishes to save Antonio’s life but was unable to do so, he handover the case to the visitors- the visitors are Portia, the lawyer in disguised and maid Nerrisa, the clerk in disguised. As the wise lawyer, Portia recurrently asks Shylock to have mercy on Antonio but shylock declines her requests and insists on the demand of pound of flesh.

Finally, the court bequests the Shylock his words and Antonia prepares himself for Shylock knife. However, the twist in the story comes when Portia asks Shylock for the “specific performance”.  She mentions that the bond only permits Shylock to remove Antonio’s flesh, not the blood. Therefore, if Shylock stayed to shed a single drop of blood, he will have to surrender his “lands and goods” under Venetian laws. Moreover, Portia also tells Shylock to cut precisely one pound of flesh and also advises if he cuts more flesh even of the estimate of a single hair, they will confiscate all his goods and wealth.

Helpless to the conditions imposed, Shylock compromises to accept Bassanio’s offer for the evaded bond. However, Portia mentions that he has refused this offer in the open court and now he is unable to avail it. Furthermore, she quotes the law, under which Shylock property has been confiscated in an attempt to murder a citizen. Half of his property is fortified to the government while half to Antonia, leaving Shylock’s life on the mercy of the Duke. The Duke forgives the Shylock.

Antonia gives half of the property back to the Shylock upon condition that the principle share will be given to his Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, by him and shylock should also covert himself to Christianity. At the end of the story, another good news arrives the all of Antonia’s ships have returned safely. The happy ending of the play was celebrated by all except Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice Themes:

Following are the main themes of the play “The Merchant of Venice”:

Love Versus Self-Interest

The Christian Characters in the play represents the love and value for human relationships more than money and business, whereas, The Jewish Character, Shylock, represents a character who always think of his self-interest. The merchant Antonia in the play is the best representation of love as he lends money without self-interest. Secondly, he gets ready to surrender his life for Bassanio. Whereas Shylock value money more than any human relationship which is shown through the scene when his daughter escaped with a Christian man and took his money along with her and Shylock run in streets crying about his money. However, we cannot merely associate the self-interest to Shylock’s Character. He, too, to some extend disvalue money over human relationships. He got hurt when his daughter Jessica sold the ring that he gifted to his wife. Moreover, he values his resentment more than the money that Bassanio offers.

Bassanio and Portia are also the representation of love in the play.

Mercy:

The plot of the story represents a conflict between Shylock, a Jewish Character, and Antonia, a Christian character. Although, the law is on the Shylock’s side because of the contract that was signed between both, however, he is reluctant to show mercy on Christian character. Shylock, in the play, is the best representation of a Jewish character who is merciless and are of a rigid nature. While on the other hand, Christian characters, strictly adhering to the New Testament is expected to show mercy which is the divine manifestation.

At the climax of the plot, when the story takes the turn and everything goes in favor of Antonia and against Shylock: Antonia, being Christian, shows mercy over Shylock and requests the Duke to return his property upon a certain condition. Mercy, represented in this play, sweet and selfless.

Hatred and Prejudice:

At the start of the play, we come to about Antonia’s hatred towards Shylock for being Jewish. Shylock time and again faces Christian’s hatred for one reason or other. This results in developing his inner hatred towards them. This hatred was more polished when his daughter Jessica escaped with a Christian man Lorenzo taking his wealth along. Through the bond, Shylock finds the way to avenge Christians. But the love of Christians overwhelmed shylock’s hate towards them.

The Merchant of Venice Characters:

Following are the major characters of the play “The Merchant of Venice

Antonia:

Antonia is a rich Christian merchant in Venice. His love for his friend Bassanio prompts him to sign a contract of one pound of his flesh. He is a character who possess both the characteristics of the protagonist and antagonists. He shows great love and affection towards his Christian friends but is harsher towards Jews and abuse them with his outspoken Anti-Semitism. However, at the end of the story, being representative of Christian’s New Testament, he shows great mercy towards Shylock, A Jewish Character, too.

Shylock:

He is a rich Jewish moneylender in Venice who is highly angered by the ill-treatment he receives on behalf of Christians, particularly Antonia. Shylock is presented as a villain in the story, who schemes to eke out his revenge by demanding a pound of Antonia’s flesh. He is seen by the audience as an inhuman monster; however, all this reaction is because of the inner hatred that developed slowly and gradually because of the mistreatment he received from Christians. The complex nature of his character earned him a place as the most memorable character in Shakespearean plays.

Bassanio:

He is a kind and dear friend of Antonia. Bassanio is a gentleman who falls in love with a wealthy heiress Portia of Belmont and wishes to marry her. His wish to marry Portia leads him to lend 3000 ducats from Shylock with Antonia’s as money guarantor. He, according to the will of Portia’s father, shows himself as the praiseworthy suitor by choosing the right basket.

Portia:

A beautiful and wealthy heiress of Belmont, whose beauty only matches with her intelligence. She marries Bassanio according to her father’s will. She is the wisest and intelligent character in the play who saves Antonia life by her profound wisdom and acting as the lawyer in disguise.

Gratiano:

He is a kind friend of Bassanio who accompanies him to Belmont. He is overly talkative and flippant representing the flat character of the play. He marries Portia’s maid Nerrisa.

Nerrisa:

She is the handmaid of Portia and marries Portia’s husband friend Gratiano. She accompanies Portia to Venice and acts as lawyer’s clerk in disguise.

Jessica:

She is Shylock’s daughter who is tired of her life at her father’s home and escaped with a Christian man Lorenzo.

Lorenzo:

He is a friend of Bassanio and Antonia and loves Shylock’s daughter Jessica. He schemed to escape with Jessica and marry her in Belmont.

Duke of Venice:

A kind and merciful ruler of Venice who presides over the trial. Despite powerful man, he is unable to save Antonia’s life and is helpless in front of the law.

The Merchant of Venice Analysis:

The play, The Merchant of Venice, is categorized as the comedy, also refers to “problem comedy”. Shakespearean comedy has a light, humorous tone with clever dialogue and witty banter. Mistaken identity, deception plus disguise are the central features of this comedy. Love, marriage, family drama, multiple plots with twists and turns along with the reunification of families are characteristics of Shakespeare comedies that are best represented in this play.

There is no narrator in the play. All the story is presented through dialogues of the characters on the stage.

Shakespeare well-crafted the plot of the play. There are several appropriate instances of witty comedy in the play. The play has a fascinating and speedy scheme that arouses a tranquil, uncontaminated world resonant of fairytale and romance. The play has a complex plot only because of the complex evil nature of Shylock that is disposed at the end of the play. Shakespeare makes critical points about love, justice, mercy, and friendship, the typical Renaissance Virtues.

There are two stories in one play- the casket plot of Portia and the bond story of Shylock. Shakespeare intelligently combines the two plots. The play has uniqueness in its lack of true hero and villain. Apparently, Antonia is seen as the hero by the audience, he also has some antagonistic characteristics like hate for the Jews. While Shylock is presented as the villain of the play who bears hate for Antonia, however, this hate is the consequence of ill-treatment he receives from the Christians.

The play has two setting: the Venice- where bond was made between Shylock and Antonia and the Belmont- where the casket plot of Portia occurs.

Shakespearean comedies are characterized with light and humorous tone, however, this play has a heavier tone that one wouldn’t expect. The story is focused on biases and oppression of minorities that resulted in the heavy tone of the play.