The Merchant of Venice Summary Source And Theatrical History

The Merchant of Venice Summary Source and Theatrical History of the Drama 


The Merchant of Venice Summary


Shakespeare's most controversial play, The Merchant of Venice centres on Shylock, a Jewish money-lender who dominates the action, even though he appears in only five scenes. Let's see the - 

Summary of The Merchant of Venice 


Act 1, Scene 1:

Salerno and Solanio attempt to cheer up their friend Antonio. They are assisted by Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano. Antonio denies that he is worried about his investment in far-flung trading voyages, for he is confident of their success. The friends, except Bassanio, depart. Antonio enquires about the love affair Bassanio has promised to speak of. Bassanio replies that his extravagant lifestyle which he has supported with loans from friends, especially Antonio, may pay off if he can successfully woo and marry Portia, a rich heiress. The play opens with Antonio, the merchant identified in the title,  describing to his friends a strange sadness that has lately taken hold of him. In due course Bassanio, Antonio's dearest friend, comes to ask him for a loan to finance a trip to Belmont, where he hopes to win the hand of a wealthy heiress named Portia. However, he wishes to borrow more money in order to present himself as an impressive enough suitor to compete with his wealthy rivals. Antonio assures his friend that he will loan him as much as he needs because Antonio's funds are all invested in ships at the moment. He promises to borrow the money to support Bassanio's courtship. 


Act 1, Scene 2:

Portia discusses her father's will with her maid, Nerissa. Under its terms, she must marry the man who selects from among three chests or caskets  - one each of gold, silver and lead - the one that contains the consent placed in it by her father. Portia worries about the sort of husband she may win in this lottery. She and Nerissa discuss and humorously dismiss a number of potential suitors, and Nerissa reveals, to the relief of her mistress, that all of them have decided not to choose among the caskets because of a penalty that Portia's father has decreed for those who pick either of the wrong ones. Nerissa reminds Portia of Bassanio, who had visited some time before, and they agree that he would make an acceptable suitor. Word comes that a new suitor, the Prince of Morocco has arrived. 


Act 1, Scene 3:

Bassanio and Antonio ask the Jewish moneylender, Shylock for a loan. Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian. Antonio remarks that he is opposed to usury, the lending of money at interest and Shylock defends the Practise. Further, Shylock observes that Antonio has often spat on him and insulted him for being a Jew, and he asks why he should be expected to assist his tormentor. Antonio frankly acknowledges that Shylock must regard the loan as one made to an enemy. Shylock, however, insists that he wishes to be friendly and offers to lend him the money interest-free for three months. Shylock agrees to supply him with the sum he requests at no interest, provided that Antonio will agree to surrender a pound of his flesh if Antonio can not repay the loan when it comes due. Although Bassanio is uneasy about this arrangement, Antonio signs a legal contract for the loan, confident that his business ventures will soon bring him nine times the amount required. 


Act 2, Scene 1:

Morocco declares his love for Portia and agrees to be bound by her father's will: if he selects the right casket, he will marry her, but he must solemnly swear that, if he chooses one of the others, he will never marry anyone.


Act 2, Scene 2:

Shylock's clownish servant, Launcelot Gobbo, soliloquies humorously on his desire to run away from his master. His blind father, Old Gobbo appears. Launcelot teases his father, pretending to be a stranger, but finally speaks seriously of his plan to desert Shylock and work for Bassanio, a more liberal and generous master. Bassanio happens by, and Gobbo, with much comical prompting from his son, speaks to him about employing Launcelot. Bassanio, finding the youth amusing, agrees and Launcelot departs to give notice to Shylock. Gratiano enters and asks to accompany Bassanio when he travels to Portia's estate. Bassanio agrees but insists that Gratiano curb his usual wild humour. 


Act 2, Scene 3:

Shylock's daughter, Jessica, bids Launcelot farewell and gives him a letter to deliver to Lorenzo. Alone, she regrets that she is Shylock's daughter but takes heart in the prospect of marrying Lorenzo and converting to Christianity. 


Act 2, Scene 4:

Lorenzo, with Gratiano, Salerio and Solanio, are preparing for a masque when Launcelot arrives with the letter from Jessica. Lorenzo gives him a message for Jessica: he, Lorenzo, shall not fail her. Salerio and Solanio leave, and Lorenzo tells Gratanio that he and Jessica plan to elope that morning. 


Act 2, Scene 5:

Launcelot delivers an invitation to dinner from Bassanio to Shylock and hints to Jessica that Lorenzo is about to arrive.


Act 2, Scene 6:

Lorenzo, accompanied by Gratiano and Salerio, takes Jessica from Shylock's house. Antonio enters and gives Gratiano the message that Bassanio is preparing to leave for Belmont, Portia's estate.


Act 2, Scene 7:

With Portia, Morocco reads the inscription on the caskets. The gold one promises What many men desire', the silver offers as much as the chooser deserves; the lead warns that the chooser 'must give and hazard all he hath'. Morocco rejects the lead as a plainly foolish choice and the silver as inadequate. He selects the gold casket but finds inside it a rhyme informing him that he has lost. He departs, to Portia's relief. 


Act 2, Scene 8:

Salerio and Solanio gossip about Shylock's hysterical discovery that Jessica has fled and taken much of his money. They reflect that Shylock's anger will affect Antonio if he fails to repay his debt, and they worry that a rich Venetian ship, reported lost, may be one of his.


Act 2, Scene 9:

The Prince of Arragon ventures to choose one of the caskets and win Portia's hand. He rejects the gold's offer of 'what many men desire' as the choice of the foolish multitudes who value outward appearance. Feeling that he is quite worthy, he elects the silver casket's promise of as much as he deserves. However, a rhyme inside the casket announces his failure, and he leaves. A messenger brings word that a young Venetian intends to enter the lottery of the caskets. Portia and Nerissa hope that he will prove to be Bassanio. 


Act 3, Scene 1:

Solanio and Salerio discuss the rumoured loss of Antonio's ship. Shylock appears and curses Jessica; he also rails against Antonio, vowing that he will collect his pound of flesh as revenge for Antonio's anti-semitism. Shylock observes that Jews are like Christians in bodily respects, and he will prove that their desire for revenge is also the same. A message from Antonio causes the gentlemen to depart, and Shylock's friend Tubal arrives. Tubal reports that he has been unable to find Jessica, but he has heard of her extravagance with her father's money. Shylock is frantic about his lost wealth, but Tubal also tells his friend that Antonio has suffered further losses and is said to be bankrupt. Shylock becomes exultant. 


Act 2, Scene 2:

Portia asks Bassanio to postpone choosing among the caskets, for he must leave if he fails and she has fallen in love with him. Bassanio, however, can not tolerate the suspense, and he proceeds to his selection. He rejects the gold and silver as representing false glamour and expensive show, and he opens the lead casket. Inside he finds Portia's picture and a text confirming that he has won her hand. She gives him a ring, which he swears to wear until he dies. Gratiano and Nerissa reveal that they have also fallen in love, and a double wedding is proposed. Salerio arrives from Venice with Lorenzo and Jessica. He tells Bassanio that Antonio has lost all his vessels and that Shylock has said that he will demand the pound of flesh. Portia offers to pay Shylock many times over.


Act 3, Scene 3:

Antonio, in the custody of a Gaoler, approaches Shylock, but the Jew will not speak to him; he angrily repeats his demand for the pound of flesh and departs. Antonio prepares to die; he Hope's only to see Bassanio again. 


Act 3, Scene 4:

Portia announces her intention to enter a religious retreat while Bassanio tries to help Antonio in Venice. She instructs her servant Balthazar to deliver a letter to her cousin in Padua. He is then to meet her with the documents and clothing the cousin will give him. She tells Nerissa of her plan: they shall go to Venice disguised as men.


Act 3, Scene 5:

Launcelot, in his capacity as a professional fool, impudently jests with Jessica and Lorenzo, who then banter affectionately. 


Act 4, Scene 1:

The Duke of Venice convenes a  court to try Shylock's claim. Shylock is asked to be merciful, but he refuses. The Duke announces that he has sent to a Paduan scholar for a legal opinion. Portia and Nerissa arrive, disguised as a lawyer and his clerk sent by the scholar. Portia interviews Shylock and Antonio. After Shylock repeatedly demands strict justice, she awards him his pound of flesh but prohibits him from drawing any blood - for blood is not mentioned in the contract. Realising that he is beaten, Shylock says he will accept money, but Portia rules that he shall have only the exact justice he has demanded. He may attempt to extract his bloodless flesh, or he may withdraw his suit, but he can not claim the money. Shylock concedes defeat and is about to leave when Portia further rules that, as a non-Venetian who has attempted to take the life of a citizen, he is subject to the death penalty- unless the Duke pardons him - and to the confiscation of all his possessions. The Duke permits him to live, and Antonio suggests that he be allowed to keep half of his earthly goods in exchange for converting to Christianity and deeding the other half to Lorenzo and Jessica. Shylock agrees to these terms. The Paduan lawyer (Portia) refuses a fee but asks Bassanio for his ring as a token of thanks. He refuses saying that it was a sacred gift from his wife, but he repents after she leaves, accusing himself of ingratitude. He sends Gratiano to give the ring to the lawyer. 


Act 4, Scene 2:

Gratiano gives the ring to Portia who asks him to direct her clerk (Nerissa) to Shylock's house to deliver the deed that the money-lender must sign. Nerissa tells Portia that she will contrive to get Gratiano to give her his ring as well. 


Act 5, Scene 1:

Lorenzo and Jessica enjoy the moonlight and music at Belmont, joyfully comparing themselves to various famous lovers. Word arrives that Portia and Nerissa are returning from the monastery, and Launcelot, comically imitating a hunting horn, heralds the approach of Bassanio. The lovers resume their contemplation and Lorenzo reflects on the harmony of the spheres. Portia and Nerissa enter, just ahead of Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio. The women discover that their husbands no longer have their rings, and they chastise them severely, evoking pained excuses. Finally, Portia reveals the truth, and the party moves indoors to celebrate their reunion. 


Source of the The Merchant of Venice:

Shakespeare assembled the plot of the play, The Merchant of Venice from a variety of sources, mostly Italian. The "pound of flesh" came from "Il pecorone" ( "The Dunce"), a collection of stories by the little known Italian writer Giovanni Fiorentino. The choice of three caskets came from a popular story that appeared in several collections, mostly notably the anonymous "Gesta Romanorum", published in 1472 and translated into English in 1577. The Jessica-Lorenzo subplot was from "Il novellino" by the Italian novelist Masuccio Salernitano. Shakespeare combined the various kinds narrative strands to create a complex drama that deals with various kinds of bonds, those linking parent and child, husband and wife, friend and friend, master and servant, debtor and creditor, and ultimately one human being with all others.


Performance History of The Merchant of Venice:

Although The Merchant of Venice is frequently performed in England, where it is a required text for school students, it seldom appears on stage or in the classroom in the United States and other countries. Many producers and educators do not want to risk offending Jewish audiences by presenting a play in which the "villain" is Jewish and the "heroes" are all anti-Semitic. Others, however, have addressed this problem by emphasising the more sympathetic aspects of Shylock's nature. The complexities of this character make the role a particular challenge for actors.

During the 1600s and early 1700s, Shylock was presumably played as a comic villain like Marlowe's Barabas. (At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the 1930s and 1950s, Angus Bowmer gave a very effective "historical" portrait of a comic Shylock, complete with red beard and wig and a putty nose.) When Charles Macklin took over the role in 1741, he played a more terrifying villain, as Maria Edgeworth indicates in a scene from her novel, Harrington. Portrayals of Shylock became more appealing in the 1800s, probably beginning with Edmund Kean's representation of the Jew as one "more sinn'd against than sinning". This interpretation reached a high point in Henry Irving's production, which added a new scene in Act II in which Shylock returns home from dinner and knocks on his door in vain, unaware that Jessica is not there to let him in.

Twentieth century productions varied in their presentation of Shylock. Key differences can be seen in the way various actors have handled the courtroom scene in which Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity. In the National Theater production directed by Jonathan Miller in London in 1970, Lawrence Oliver's Shylock gave a horrendous offstage scream after his exit in this scene. By contrast Patrick Stewart's Shylock in the 1978 Royal Shakespeare Company production was far less sympathetic: interested primarily in money, he cared little about being forced to convert. In 1999 at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C Hal Holbrook played a Shylock who accepted Antonio's terms with great pain, and the trial scene ended in a near brawl between Jewish and Christian characters. Portrayals of Jessica have also changed over time. In some productions of the late 1990s, she was shown having second thoughts about her betrayal of her father and her conversion to Christianity. 

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