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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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SHORT PLOT/SCENE SUMMARY (Synopsis)

Bassanio, a young Venetian from a good family, has squandered his inherited fortune. Eager to restore his wealth and to woo and win the wealthy Portia of Belmont, he seeks a loan from Antonio, who is a merchant of Venice and his dearest friend. Antonio has no ready cash, for all his fortune is invested in his ships at sea. He offers his young friend his good name as credit to raise the funds wherever he can in Venice. Shylock is a miserly Jewish moneylender whom Antonio has often insulted. Antonio and Bassanio now go to him for a loan. Shylock refuses to charge interest on this loan, but jokingly draws up a bond by which he shall be entitled to one pound of Antonio's flesh if the debt is not paid on time. Antonio agrees to the bond, feeling sure that with so many merchant ships abroad, he will have many times the sum in three months. While Shylock arranges this agreement, his daughter Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, a Christian youth, taking much of Shylock's fortune with her.


At Belmont, Portia discusses with her maid the plight she is in. She is wooed by many suitors who do not impress her. She is not free to choose her own husband, but must follow the procedure decreed by her father in his will. Every suitor must choose between three caskets of gold, silver, and lead in an attempt to discover which casket contains Portia's portrait. If the suitors fail to choose correctly, they must leave Belmont immediately and vow never to marry. Portia discovers with despair that a new suitor, the Prince of Morocco, has just arrived to try his hand. He incorrectly chooses the gold, while the Prince of Arragon is equally unlucky with the silver. Bassanio correctly selects the lead casket and wins Portia, who has fallen in love with him. Portia gives Bassanio a ring that he promises he will never take off. Gratiano and Nerissa also announce their engagement.

Disturbing news arrives. Antonio's ships have been lost at sea; as a result, he cannot repay Shylock's loan. Bassanio hears the news first. Shylock insists on an adherence to their agreement and wants a pound of Antonio's flesh. Portia urges Bassanio to proceed to Venice with money to free his friend. She pretends to retire to a monastery for prayer before her wedding night. She dresses as a lawyer, and goes to Venice herself. At court in Venice, Shylock refuses all pleas of mercy from Antonio and the Duke. He even refuses Bassanio's offer to repay the loan many times over. He is determined on revenge. Portia arrives disguised as a doctor of law and asks Shylock to be merciful. At his refusal, she agrees that he is within his legal rights. Antonio prepares to lose his life. Bassanio and Antonio embrace in sad farewell as Shylock sharpens his knife. Portia now reminds him that there is no clause in the bond that will permit the shedding of blood. Shylock cannot take his pound of Antonio's flesh without shedding blood, so he asks instead for repayment of money. However, Portia reminds the court of another law, by which any alien who plots against the life of a Venetian will lose his life and property. Shylock, as an alien Jew, is guilty of plotting against the life of Antonio, a native Venetian. The Duke pardons Shylock. He also rules that Shylock must give up half his fortune to Antonio and leave all his property in his will to Jessica. Shylock agrees and leaves the court a broken man.

Bassanio thanks the young lawyer profusely. All the lawyer asks in reward is the ring which Portia has given to Bassanio for their engagement. A reluctant Bassanio, at the entreaties of Antonio, gives the lawyer the ring. Antonio and Bassanio now return to Belmont to the waiting Portia. She pretends to be very angry when she discovers that Bassanio has given away her ring. She threatens to leave him and go off with the lawyer. Bassanio promises never to break his word to her again. Portia accepts his promise and offers him a ring--the same ring that he has given to the lawyer. She explains that she was the doctor of law who saved Antonio at Venice. She also tells them that three of Antonio's ships have returned safely, laden with wealth. Everyone looks forward to the coming wedding for Portia and Bassanio with great joy.

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