Antonio, a merchant of Venice, is asked by Bassanio, his friend, for a loan so that he may pay fitting court to the rich and beautiful Portia of Belmont, who prefers him above her other princely suitors. Though Antonio would gladly make the loan, his fortune is tied up at see in his trading vessels, and the money is sought from Shylock, a moneylender.
At their meeting, Shylock reflects, of Antonio:
- "I hate him for he is a Christian;
- But more for that in low simplicity
- He lends out money gratis and brings down
- The rate of usage here with us in Venice.
- If I can catch him once upon the hip
- I will feed the ancient grudge I bear him.
- He hates our sacred nation; and he rails,
- Even where merchants most do congregate,
- On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
- Which he calls interest. Curst be my tribe,
- If I forgive him!"
Shylock slyly simulates friendship and offers the money, on condition that Antonio be willing to sign a bond ("in merry sport") to forfeit a pound of his flesh. Antonio agrees to what is apparently a jest, and Bassanio prepares to journey to Belmont. Shylock's hatred for Antonio is heightened when, apparently with Antonio's aid, his friend Lorenzo elopes with Shylock's daughter Jessica, who takes with her both money and jewels.
At Belmont, Bassanio has won Portia's hand by solving the riddle of her father's will which provides that she shall marry the suitor who correctly chooses among three caskets--one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. Portia gives him a ring, but warns that, should he part with it, it shall mean the end of their love. Bassanio assures Portia that he will wear the ring until his death.
The lovers' joy is suddenly blighted by the news that Antonio's ships have been lost and that his bond is now forfeit. Portia bids Bassanio pay Shylock treble the required sum, if need be, from her fortune, and he leaves for Venice. In haste, Portia sends a messenger to Bellario, a learned doctor of the law at Padua.
Meanwhile, Shylock, questioned as to what he proposes to do with Antonio's flesh, replies:
"To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies; and what's his reason? 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 the 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? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction."
Shylock has Antonio haled into court where the presiding Duke of Venice vainly appeals to the Jew to forego his cruel forfeit, and Bassanio as vainly offers in payment ten times the loan, on forfeit of his life. But Shylock is unyielding and Antonio is prepared for the ordeal.
Then Portia, disguised in the robes of a doctor of laws, appears to plead mercy for Antonio. Asked by Shylock why he should be merciful, she replies:
- "The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
- It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
- Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest:
- It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;
- 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
- The throned monarch better than his crown;
- His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
- The attribute to awe and majesty,
- Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
- But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
- It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
- It is an attribute to God himself;
- The earthly power doth then show likest God's
- When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
- Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
- That, in the course of justice, none of us
- Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
- And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
- The deeds of mercy..."
But Shylock applauds Portia as "a Daniel come to judgment" when she declares that Antonio must yield his pound of flesh. To her plea that he provide a surgeon to stop Antonio's wounds, he answers only: "Is it so nominated in the bond? I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond." Antonio says farewell to Bassanio, who vows that he would sacrifice even his life and his wife if he could spare his friend. Portia remarks: "Your wife would give you little thanks for that, if she were by to hear you make the offer."
Shylock is about to take his forfeit when Portia warns him that the bond permits a pound of flesh but no blood, and that, should he shed one drop, his lands and goods are confiscate under the law. Shylock then calls for payment in money instead; but Portia insists he must take the flesh, and warns him further that it must be neither more nor less than a pound or his own life and goods are forfeit by law. Now denied even his principal, Shylock prepares to go, but Portia points out that an alien who has plotted against the life of a Venetian must give half his goods to his intended victim, half to the state. Antonio shows mercy in providing that Shylock's fortune shall be shared with Jessica and that she shall be his heiress.
Antonio and Bassanio are profuse in their thanks to Portia, but she will accept in payment only Antonio's gloves and the ring Bassanio has sworn never to lose. Her waiting-maid, Nerissa, who has served in the guise of Portia's clerk, also demands a ring from her lover, Gratiano, another friend of Antonio and Bassanio. Back in Belmont, Portia and Nerissa, after teasing Bassanio and Gratiano by insisting that they have given their rings to other women, finally disclose the masquerade, and all ends happily.