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The play is dominated by the revenge that Shylock feels is his due. Shakespeare contrasts Shylock's hatred to the basic goodness of Antonio.
Antonio, who stands for the commercial world of Venice, is a successful businessman and owner of several merchant ships. He feels quite comfortable taking a loan from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender, for the benefit of Bassanio. Antonio knows that when his ships return from sea, he will be able to repay the loan. As a result, he agrees that the vengeful Shylock can have a pound of his flesh if Antonio fails to meet the terms of their agreement.
Shylock plays the anti-Semitic stereotype of the Elizabethan Jew. He is a miserly and mean character, who is alienated from the happy, fun-loving society of Venice. Both his profession and his Jewish heritage set him apart in the very world in which he makes his living. His hatred for all things Christian probably stems from the injustice and cruelty with which he is treated. It is this hatred that leads him to make a cruel bargain with Antonio for a pound of his flesh if he does not repay a loan. When Antonio is unable to make the repayment, Shylock tries unsuccessfully to carry through with the exact agreement.
The climax occurs when the wise and good Portia dresses as a lawyer and appears anonymously in court to plead the cause of Antonio. She cunningly succeeds in saving Antonio from the evil intentions of Shylock. In addition, she turns the law on the moneylender and gains a monetary settlement for Antonio, stripping the Jew of all his wealth. It is not until the end of the play, when Antonio and Bassanio return to Belmont, that Portia reveals that she is the lawyer who saves Antonio.
The play ends in comedy. With the help of Portia, Shylock is defeated, reviled, and rejected. At the same time, all the good characters in the play receive their just rewards. Antonio receives a cash settlement from Shylock and finds that all his ships have not been lost at sea. Portia and Bassanio are rewarded with love and happiness with one another. Lorenzo and Jessica and Gratiano and Nerissa also find happiness in their love.