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The Merchant of Venice

Some of the greatest fictional heroes have arch-nemeses. Batman has the Joker. Harry Potter is pitted against Voldemort. But what about Shakespearean heroes? In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from his arch-enemy, Antonio. Let’s find out how it all went down. 

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The Merchant of Venice


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Some of the greatest fictional heroes have arch-nemeses. Batman has the Joker. Harry Potter is pitted against Voldemort. But what about Shakespearean heroes? In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock demands a pound of flesh from his arch-enemy, Antonio. Let’s find out how it all went down.

The Merchant of Venice: plot

Shakespeare was significantly inspired by other texts and figures when he composed his plays, and The Merchant of Venice is no exception. Elements of the three casket test that is used to select Portia's suitors in Act 2, Scene 7 are borrowed from Gesta Romanorum, a compilation of tales in Latin from the late 13th or early 14th century. However, the most remarkable inspiration comes from the author’s surroundings – particularly the treatment of Jews in Elizabethan England. In fact, Jews were expelled from England through the Edict of Expulsion and all their properties were confiscated by the crown. It was in 1657 that the edict was finally overturned and Jewish folk were allowed into England.

The Edict of Expulsion was a royal decree, issued by King Edward I in 1290, which declared that all Jews must leave the Kingdom of England by All Saints' Day (November 1st), and that their properties and assets would be confiscated by the crown.

Over 3 centuries of anti-Semitic sentiments are reflected in the various characters’ treatment of Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice. Notably, The Merchant of Venice is set in Italy and not England, for Jews were still restricted from entering England at the time. So, why are these anti-Semitic attitudes so prominent in the play? Critics argue whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic himself, or whether he was holding up a mirror to the Elizabethan society to reflect their unjustified prejudices against the Jewish community. While there is no definitive answer regarding Shakespeare's intent, one thing is clear – Shylock is a complex character whose Jewish status further enriches his intrigue. He calls out the bias against Jews openly, and his villainy stems, not from hate without cause, but from the poor treatment and marginalisation he is subjected to by his fellow men.

Anti-Semitism: prejudice towards Jewish people.

The Merchant of Venice: summary

Money, assets, and properties are as significant today as they were in the 16th century. The play opens with a dejected Bassanio telling his friend Antonio, a merchant in the port city of Venice, that he wishes to marry the lady of his dreams but does not have the economic backing to do so. Antonio, a good friend, has often helped Bassanio out, and he resolves to do so once again.

However, Antonio has liquidity issues and practically no cash at hand. All of his money is invested in his trade ships which are at sea, but he hopes for big returns. As this does not help Bassanio, he suggests borrowing money from a moneylender which he will repay once his ships return.

Meanwhile, Portia, the lady of Bassanio’s dreams, has come into a large inheritance after the death of her father. In his will, Portia’s father has set conditions to find a match for her. Three caskets are laid out, and the man who chooses the right casket will win Portia’s hand. As a beautiful and wealthy heiress, Portia has numerous suitors. But, her lady-in-waiting Nerissa remarks that, out of all of the men, Bassanio was the only one who looked marriage-worthy.

Back in Venice, Bassanio unwillingly meets with Shylock to ask him if he would lend him money in Antonio's good name. Shylock, whose business has previously been ruined because of Antonio's meddling, says that he knows doing deals with Antonio and his shipping business can be risky as ships do not always return. There is also the matter of Antonio publicly insulting Shylock as he is a Jew, and Shylock launches into a passionate speech comparing Christians to Jews before directly addressing Antonio and seeing an opportunity to exact his revenge.

Shylock agrees to lend money to Bassanio, but he demands a 'pound of flesh' as collateral. If Antonio does not pay the money back within three months, Shylock can take a pound of flesh from any part of Antonio's body. Bassanio thinks this is a terrible idea and refuses, even as Antonio agrees. Antonio believes he will have ten times the amount within the three months and he signs the bond drawn up by Shylock.

Eventually, Bassanio and Gratiano travel to Belmont to win Portia's hand. However, before leaving, the two of them meet with their friend, Lorenzo, to celebrate. A servant delivers a letter to Lorenzo from Shylock's daughter, Jessica, who Lorenzo plans to elope with to break into the Jewish quarters. Bassanio invites Shylock to dinner, and Jessica leaves with Lorenzo. Shylock is distressed upon finding Jessica and a portion of his money gone. In the meantime, one of Antonio's friends has heard of a ship from Venice capsizing at sea and hopes it is not Antonio's ship.

In Venice, tensions are high as news circulates that one of Antonio's ships have sunk. Shylock, who meets with Antonio's friends, makes a passionate speech about all the prejudices and biases Antionio has subjected him to and how his revenge will be fed with a pound of Antonio's flesh. Shylock's friend, Tubal, appears and states that it is likely another one of Antonio's ships have sunk.

At Belmont, a Prince from Africa and another from Arragon try their luck at choosing the right casket, but fail. Bassanio arrives at Belmont, and Portia wonders if she should help Bassanio choose the correct chest but then resolves not to do in honour of her dead father's wishes. Portia and Bassanio confess their feelings for each other, and Bassanio chooses the right casket. Nerissa and Gratiano also hit it off and announce their engagement. Amidst celebrations, a messenger informs Bassanio that Antonio is in jail for his failure to pay Shylock back in time. Portia offers to double the sum to be paid back, and Bassanio takes the money and immediately returns to Venice.

Shylock visits Antonio in prison, mocking him that the law is on his side and that he will finally get a pound of Antonio's flesh as the bond Antonio signed is binding. Portia, still at Belmont, wishes to help Bassanio and Antonio further. She sends a letter to her cousin in Padua, who lends them his robes to appear as lawyers before the Duke. In the Venetian courtroom, Shylock insists on having his pound of flesh and refuses the extra sum offered by Bassanio. The court tries to persuade him to have mercy, but he refuses, saying he is well within his rights.

Antonio claims that it is pointless to try to reason with Shylock as his Jewish nature would not allow him to be moved and have mercy. The Duke receives a message from Dr Bellario stating that his associates, Balthazar and Stephano, who are really Portia and Nerissa disguised as lawyers, will argue for Antonio's cause. Balthazar (Portia) makes a passionate appeal to Shylock and asks for his mercy, which Shylock vehemently refuses. Balthazar then asks Shylock to go ahead and carve his pound of flesh but reminds him that, since the bond mentions a pound of flesh, he may only have that – he cannot spill a single drop of Christian blood, nor carve more than a pound exactly.

Knowing that carving a pound of flesh is impossible without shedding blood, Shylock changes his mind and offers to take the money instead. Balthazar knows that he has Shylock in a corner and asks the court to confiscate his holdings and force him to convert to Christianity.

Meanwhile, Balthazar and Stephano refuse payment or rewards from Bassanio and Gratiano. When the latter pair insist on rewarding them, they ask for their wedding rings as payment. Later, Portia and Nerissa provide comic relief by asking to see the men's wedding rings which they confess they parted with, only to find out that the rings were in the care of Portia and Nerissa who were disguised as the lawyers. All ends well for Antonio too, as the rumours of the sunken ships prove false, and the ships safely return to Venice.

The Merchant of Venice: characters


A thriving merchant in the city of Venice, Antonio is a loyal friend and the titular character of the play. Antonio is willing to go to great lengths to help Bassanio, including risking his own life. He is confident yet proud of his Christian faith, and he is derisive of Shylock as he is Jew. This brings to light Antonio's prejudices against Jews, and allows for the audience to sympathise with Shylock's refusal to have mercy on him because of Antonio's open disgust and hatred towards Jews.


Bassanio is Antonio's closest friend. Often, Antonio comes to Bassanio's aid when the he is in trouble. When Antonio is in trouble, Bassanio immediately leaves everything behind to help him. Although Bassanio comes across as an irresponsible spendthrift at the beginning of the play, his contemplation of the caskets before choosing the right one shows his growth and maturity.


Shylock is arguably the most interesting and complex character in this play and perhaps even across all of Shakespeare's works. He reveals the anti-Semitic sentiments harboured by Christians like Antonio, and he is driven, not by blind hatred, but by his growing bitterness as a result of being treated unfairly by his fellow man. This is perhaps why Shylock values getting his revenge against Antonio more than double or triple the sum he is owed. In the play, Shakespeare draws a stereotypical portrait of Jews, but also of how Jews were treated through the character of Shylock.


Portia is wealthy, beautiful, and clever. Her logical reasoning and compassion are what save Antonio's life, and in doing so, she represents true Christian values of forgiveness and mercy. She is assertive and knows the value placed on learned men, therefore disguising herself as a lawyer rather than wielding her influence as an heiress. She also has a sense of humour, as seen in the final wedding ring related exchange with Bassanio.

The Merchant of Venice: quotes

Shylock: [...] I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?

(Act 3, Scene 1)

This is among the most passionate speeches in the play, as Shylock unmasks the prejudice against Jews and justifies his desire for revenge against Antonio. Here, the audience may sympathise with Shylock, who wants to commit evil, but only because he is subjected to evil. However, although one may sympathise, one cannot condone Shylock's bloodlust.

Shylock: [...] The pound of flesh which I demand of him

Is dearly bought. 'Tis mine, and I will have it.

(Act 4, Scene 1)

Here, Shylock affirms his conviction to have his revenge, stating that he has a legal right to his pound of flesh and that he will ensure that the court honours his lawful contract with Antonio.

Portia: [...] It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;It is an attribute to God himself,And earthly power doth then show likest God’sWhen mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,Though justice be thy plea, consider this:That in the course of justice none of usShould see salvation. We do pray for mercy,And that same prayer doth teach us all to renderThe deeds of mercy.

(Act 4, Scene 1)

These lines are spoken by Balthazar, who is really Portia in disguise. The 'it' here refers to mercy, which Balthazar sees as a fine and redeeming quality. Balthazar repeatedly requests Shylock to take the money and have mercy on his fellow men. By embodying the qualities of mercy and forgiveness, Portia represents the true and honourable Christian in the play.

All that glisters is not gold;

Often have you heard that told:

Many a man his life hath sold

But my outside to behold:

Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

(Act 2, Scene 7)

The Prince of Morocco, one of Portia's suitors, is taken in by the appearance of the glittery gold casket and picks it. The casket is the false one, as it includes a skull and a note with the lines above, stating that he has been deceived by appearances.

The Merchant of Venice: themes

Religious Biases

Biases due to differing religious beliefs are the central theme in the play and often guide the actions of the two leading characters of the play, Shylock and Antonio. Shakespeare was likely significantly influenced by the prevailing anti-Semitic sentiments in England at the time and crafted the character of Shylock accordingly. However, Shylock comes across as a complex villain influenced and embittered by these biases rather than a one-dimensional character.


Mercy is an important theme, particularly during the courtroom scenes. Numerous characters implore Shylock to forego his contract, take mercy on Antonio, and accept the delayed payment. Portia also preaches the virtue of mercy, which is central to Christian beliefs. Shylock denounces this request and points out the hypocrisy of the Venetian court and society as he states that, if the positions were reversed, the court would act mercifully and not force Antonio to convert to the Jewish faith.


Financial status and economics drive the plot forward. Bassanio seeks out Antonio's help with finances to woo Portia. Portia's wealth and status end up helping to save Antonio's life. Antonio is deeply hated by Shylock for meddling in his business and sees the collateral on the sum he lends to Antonio as a means to exact revenge. In fact, finance and economics are so important to the play that they are clearly signposted in the title, with Antonio's status as a merchant of Venice influencing the events that unfold.

The Merchant of Venice - Key takeaways

  • The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare.
  • The play revolves around a Jewish moneylender wishing to exact revenge upon a Christian merchant in the town of Venice.
  • The main characters of the play include Antonio, Shylock, Bassanio, and Portia.
  • The main themes of the play include religious biases, mercy, and finance.
  • The play highlights the anti-Semitic sentiments of English society during the Elizabethan Age.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Merchant of Venice

While the precise date of writing is unknown, The Merchant of Venice is believed to have been written in 1596 or 1597.

The Merchant of Venice is Antonio.

The central theme of The Merchant of Venice is religious bias and revenge.

In The Merchant of Venice, a Jewish moneylender seeks an opportunity to exact revenge on a Christian merchant who had discriminated against him when the merchant fails to pay back his loan. A courtroom battle ensues and the moneylender is punished for his merciless nature and his violent demand.

The play The Merchant of Venice aims to preach the virtue of mercy and forgiveness.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Which of the following is a theme in The Merchant of Venice?

Who does Gratiano get engaged to?

Who does Portia disguise herself as?


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