The fair, rich and virtuous Portia, the heiress of Belmont, has attracted the attention of many would-be suitors. Among these is the noble but penniless Bassanio, a Venetian gentleman. Certainly, he would have no hope of winning Portia’s hand without adequate funds for wooing, so he borrows 3,000 ducats from his merchant friend Antonio. Unfortunately, Antonio’s money is tied up in shipping and he must ask the Jewish moneylender Shylock for a loan.
Shylock and Antonio are not on friendly terms since Antonio detests usury, and he would never have had anything to do with Shylock were it not for the financial need of his friend. To Antonio’s surprise, Shylock agrees to the loan interest free, but suggests “in merry sport” that Antonio sign a bond that will permit Shylock to slice a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body if the loan is not repaid within three months. Certain that at least one of his merchant vessels will return before that time, Antonio signs the bond and turns the needed funds over to Bassanio, who leaves at once for Belmont with his friend Gratiano.
The matter of wooing Portia is more complicated than he knew, Bassanio soon learns. Her deceased father has decreed that all suitors must choose from a gold, a silver, or a lead casket (chest). If the suitor unlocks the casket containing Portia’s portrait, she becomes his bride.
Bassanio is the lucky suitor, to Portia’s delight, and so she gives him a ring as a token of her love which he vows to wear forever. Likewise, Nerissa, her maid, gives a ring to Gratiano, who has successfully wooed her. Soon after, Lorenzo, another friend of Bassanio’s, arrives with Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who has deserted her father and eloped with Lorenzo, a Christian.
Alas, word soon comes that none of Antonio’s ships has arrived, and Shylock is appealing to the Venetian courts for his pound of flesh. Bassanio and Gratiano return immediately to Venice to help Antonio.
Portia devises a plan of her own, and, disguising herself as a young male lawyer, with Nerissa as her clerk, arrives at court just as things are going very badly for Antonio. At first, she attempts to soften Shylock’s heart with her famous speech on mercy. He is not to be moved, however. Portia changes her approach and instructs Antonio to bare his bosom in order that the agreed upon pound of flesh may be extracted. Shylock may take his pound of flesh, she agrees, but he is forbidden to spill even one drop of blood, upon pain of death. Outwitted, Shylock relents, but Portia quickly points out that he is liable to have his property confiscated and be executed by Venetian law for plotting the death of a Venetian citizen. He may live, the court agrees, and pay a fine, but Antonio is to have the use of half of Shylock’s wealth, which shall go to Lorenzo upon Shylock’s death. For added measure, Antonio insists that Shylock must also become a Christian.
As a test of the devotion of their intendeds, Portia and Nerissa, still disguised, insist upon the rings Bassanio and Gratiano were given as tokens of gratitude for their legal services. The two suitors reluctantly agree, and the two young women hurry back to Belmont where they await the return of their husbands. The two young wives demand proof that the rings were not given to rivals, but soon relent as they relate the story of the disguises and the trial and return the rings to their husbands.
Word soon comes that Antonio’s rich cargo vessels have arrived, and the play ends happily for everyone except Shylock and perhaps poor Jessica who is left alone on stage wondering where she fits between the two worlds of Venice.