A wealthy merchant, Antonio, comes on stage, complaining of his sadness. His ships are at sea, and his fortune with them - though this doesn't seem to be the cause of his sadness. His friends try to comfort him, with no success. Bassanio, the man who seems to be his closest friend, makes a request: he is courting a woman in Belmont, and needs the money to court her properly. Antonio will have no money until his ships return, but he allows Bassanio use of his credit in Venice.
Meanwhile, in Belmont, the noblewoman Portia is complaining to her servant Nerissa of the system her deceased father has set up to choose her husband. Suitors will have to choose between three caskets - of gold, silver, and lead - and the one who chooses correctly will get to marry her. A number of suitors have shown up; all get the blunt end of Portia's scathing wit. Only Bassanio, who Nerissa mentions, seems to impress Portia.
In Venice, Bassanio is negotiating with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, for the money he needs to court Portia. Shylock insists on speaking with his creditor: Antonio, who then enters. Antonio scorns Shylock for making a profit from lending money, and Shylock hates Antonio for scorning him, and for cutting into his business by lending money for free. Shylock offers to lend Bassanio the money he needs, but on one condition: if Antonio does not repay the debt in exactly three months, Shylock will be entitled to one pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio, sure of his fortunes, agrees, despite Bassanio's strenuous objections.
Portia meanwhile is greeting her first suitor: the Prince of Morocco. She warns him that he may never speak to her again if he loses the lottery, but he insists on making his choice.
In Venice, Lancelot Gobbo, a clown-like servant, has just run away from his master, Shylock, to a new master, Bassanio. On the way, he encounters his blind father - who offers the gifts he brought for Shylock to Bassanio instead. Bassanio enters, welcoming Lancelot into his service. Graziano, another young Venetian, approaches Bassanio and asks if he may go with him to Belmont. Bassanio agrees, provided his friend behave himself.
At Shylock's house, Jessica, his daughter, meets up with Lancelot, giving him a letter to deliver to the Christian man she intends to marry: Lorenzo.
Lancelot arrives among the Venetian men with Jessica's letter. Lorenzo informs his friends that he's planning on running away with Jessica, and her father's money, and that they will do so that night.
Shylock, meanwhile, is about to leave for a dinner, and gives Jessica the keys and instructs her to guard the house and his money. He berates Lancelot for his infidelity - and Lancelot whispers to Jessica that Lorenzo will be coming that night.
Lorenzo shows up outside Shylock's house. Jessica appears at the window, dressed as a boy. Lorenzo tells her to come down and run away, and she does so, bringing her father's money with her. The couple prepares to leave together. Antonio then enters, and informs them all that the winds are good, and that it's time to leave for Belmont.
Meanwhile, the Prince of Morocco is choosing among the caskets. He decides on the golden one, which promises, "what many men desire." Opening it, he finds a skull and a note that chides him for being deceived by what seemed the most precious prize. Morocco leaves, and Portia says she's glad he's gone.
Two of the Venetian men, Salerio and Solanio, relate what's happening in Venice: Shylock has discovered that Jessica and his money are gone, and is shouting for justice in the streets. Further, there are rumors that Antonio's ships are in danger. Fearing for the safety of their friend, who's still indebted to Shylock, they go to warn Antonio.
In Belmont, the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, is attempting the lottery. He decides against the golden casket, but chooses the silver one, which promises "as much as he deserves." Inside is a fool's head and a note mocking him. Aragon, too, has to leave. A messenger then enters, announcing that a new and impressive suitor has just arrived from Venice.
In Venice, Antonio's friends have found out that his ships have been lost. They run into Shylock who has also heard about Antonio's misfortune, and plans to extract his revenge. He has been treated inhumanly for too long, he says, and now has his chance to get back at Antonio. Shylock then talks with a friend who has heard that Jessica cannot be found, but it is rumored that she's squandering all of his money. Shylock sends for an officer to arrest Antonio.
In Belmont, it is now Bassanio's turn to try the lottery. As he examines the caskets, Portia has a song played, which instructs him not to choose what looks best to the eyes. Bassanio chooses the leaden casket. He opens it and finds a picture of Portia, who agrees to marry him. She gives him a ring, and makes him promise to keep it. Nerissa and Graziano congratulate their friends, and announce that they too plan to get married. Jessica and Lorenzo then enter, as does Salerio, with a letter from Antonio. The letter informs Bassanio that Antonio cannot repay Shylock, who will take the pound of flesh he has been promised, and that Antonio wants to see Bassanio before he dies. Portia offers Bassanio all the money he needs to repay Antonio's debts. Bassanio and his friends leave at once for Venice.
In Venice, Shylock, insisting on his revenge, and on the law has an officer arrest Antonio.
In Belmont, Portia says that Lorenzo and Jessica can stay in the house while she waits for Bassanio in a local monastery. Once the couple is gone, Portia sends one of her servants to see a lawyer she knows in Padua. She then takes Nerissa with her to go to Venice, saying that she'll explain her plan on the way.
As Portia and Nerissa are on their way to Venice, Lancelot jests with Jessica about her escape. Lancelot leaves, and Lorenzo banters playfully and lovingly with his new wife.
Antonio and his friends are gathered in a courtroom in Venice, presided over by the Duke. The Duke demands Shylock's reasons for the pound of flesh, but Shylock offers none, other than his hatred towards Antonio and the rule of law. Bassanio offers twice what Antonio owes to Shylock, but Shylock insists on the penalty he's been promised. The Duke insists on hearing from a famous lawyer from Padua, who does not come but sends a friend, Balthasar, in his place. Balthasar and his law clerk enter the courtroom - they are actually Portia and Nerissa, disguised as men. Balthasar (Portia) instructs Shylock on the virtues of mercy, but Shylock insists on having Antonio's flesh. Balthasar (Portia) asks to see the contract, and agrees that Antonio must give Shylock the flesh he has promised. Antonio prepares for the knife, but Balthasar (Portia) makes a comment on the contract's promise of "a pound of flesh": first, Shylock may only have flesh, second, he is allowed no more and no less than a pound. If he draws any blood, or takes a little more or a little less than a pound, he will be arrested as a criminal. Further, she says it is illegal to attempt murder by direct or indirect means in Venice, and Shylock is guilty of that for trying to use this contract. Antonio's friends want to execute Shylock, but Antonio strikes a bargain: Shylock may keep his life if he gives half his wealth to Venice, promises the other half and all his other goods to Lorenzo and Jessica after his death, and coverts to Christianity. Shylock, defeated, agrees. Bassanio and Antonio thank Balthasar, and ask how they can thank him; Balthasar (Portia) wants only Bassanio's ring. Bassanio refuses, and Balthasar (Portia) leaves. But Antonio scolds Bassanio for not repaying the lawyer who saved his life, so Bassanio sends Graziano to give Balthasar the ring.
Portia and Nerissa, as Balthasar and his clerk, are talking over their success, when Graziano enters with Bassanio's ring. Nerissa (as Balthasar's clerk) leaves with Graziano, in an attempt to get the ring she has given him, as well.
In Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica talk romantically and listen to music by the riverbank. Portia and Nerissa, no longer disguised, enter, as do, a few minutes after, Bassanio and his friends, who don't know that Portia and Nerissa ever left Venice. Nerissa demands her ring from Graziano, who doesn't have it. Portia does the same, and Bassanio admits that he gave his to the lawyer who defended Antonio. Portia and Nerissa then give their husbands new rings: which turn out to be the same rings they gave away. Portia then offers a letter from the lawyer in Padua that explains how Portia and Nerissa dressed up to win Antonio's case. The letter says, further, that three of Antonio's ships have arrived safely. Nerissa tells Lorenzo and Jessica the other good news: that they will get all of Shylock's money after he dies. Portia invites everyone inside so that they can tell each other what, exactly, has happened.
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Points to Ponder
Did You Know
Scenes 1.2 and 1.3
Scenes 2.1, 2.2, and 2.3
Scenes 2.4, 2.5, and 2.6
Scenes 2.7, 2.8, and 2.9
Scenes 3.1 and 3.2
Scenes 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5
Scenes 4.1 and 4.2