THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
In this play, which is on the surface a romance and a drama, Shakespeare has assembled a cast of rather conventional characters, the pensive Antonio, the talkative Gratiano, the lively and intelligent heroine Portia, and an easily-recognisable hero, the handsome Bassanio. But his stage villain is a very different figure. Jews in Shakespeare’s time were regarded with suspicion and hatred, and discriminated against by the law. Shylock can be taken in this play simply as the black villain that Shakespeare’s audience would consider him. But he can also be seen as a misunderstood and tragic figure, tricked and abused by all, the scapegoat of society, bearing with what dignity he can the wrongs that are legally forced on him. This is Shakespear’s [ Shakespeare’s ] great art.
ACT I – IN VENICE
Bassanio, lacking money to present his suit to the rich, fair and virtuous Portia, asks his wealthy friend Antonio for a loan of three thousand ducats, to be repaid at the end of three months. Antonio readily agrees, but not having the full amount on hand he is forced to approach Shylock, who, seeing this as an opportunity to injure his hated rival, lends the money without interest. However, should Antonio fall to repay the loan within the stipulated time, Shylock is entitled to one pound of Antonio’s flesh.
ACT II – IN VENICE, AND AT PORTIA’S HOUSE IN BELMONT
Equipped with the money obtained from Antonio, Bassanio journeys with Gratiano to Belmont, and Portia. They are accompanied by Shylock’s former servant, the clown Launcelot Gobbo. Lorenzo, taking advantage of Bassanio’s departure, elopes with Shylock’s daughter Jessica. Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is following the terms of her father’s will by putting her many suitors to the test of the three caskets. Then comes the news that Bassanio has arrived.
ACT III – AT BELMONT, IN PORTIA’S HOUSE
While Bassanio is making his choice, Gratiano successfully courts Portia’s waiting-maid, Nerissa. To complete the trio of lovers, Lorenzo enters with Jessica, but their happiness is short-lived as the news arrives that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea. The bond is now forfeited and Shylock demands his pound of flesh. After the marriages, Bassanio sets off for Venice to discredit the bond. Portia, in order to save Antonio, disguises herself as a Doctor of Laws, and with Nerissa as her clerk, departs for Venice.
ACT IV – IN VENICE. A COURT OF JUSTICE
Portia arrives at the court of justice just as the trial of Shylock against Antonio is beginning. Portia’s eloquent pleas for mercy are to no avail, but her skilful handling of the case turns the judgement against Shylock, and he leaves the court a broken man. Portia and Nerissa contrive to regain their marriage rings as payment for their services.
ACT V – AT BELMONT
The merry jest of the rings is happily resolved, revealing to the astonished husbands the part played by their wives in court. Word comes that three of Antonio’s vessels have come richly to harbour; thus that which might have been a tragedy, turns for all except Shylock to happiness.
There will be a short interval between Acts II and III, and an interval of 10 minutes between Acts III and IV.