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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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The play revolves around one main plot and three sub-plots.

The main plot centers on the question of mercy and forgiveness as seen in the relationship between Antonio, the kind Christian, and Shylock, the unrelenting Jew.

The three subplots revolve around the romances of Portia and Bassanio (the most important couple in the play), of Lorenzo and Jessica, and of Gratiano and Nerissa (the least important couple of the play).

All four plots are bound by the threads of love, generosity, friendship, and the wise use of money, which are the ideals of the Elizabethan society.

The plots are also reflective of one another. Antonio's love for Bassanio is reflected in Bassanio's love for Portia. The love of Gratiano and Nerissa is modeled after the love of Portia and Bassanio. Jessica, like Antonio and Bassanio, recognizes the greed of her father and wants to replace it with Christian love, which she finds in Lorenzo.

The characters are, therefore, are tied together by friendship and Christianity. In the end, the play is a romantic comedy that emphasizes the rewards of love, generosity, and harmony.


The Merchant of Venice weaves many themes into its complex set of plots. One of the themes is that religious intolerance and usury are destructive forces. Antonio, as a true Christian, has often condemned the usury of moneylenders. He knows that since the early twelfth century, Christians are forbidden by the Church to lend money for profit. Shylock, as a Jew, does not consider his money-lending and exorbitant interest to be a sin in any manner. In fact, he considers his earnings through money lending as the gift of God. He appeals to and quotes the Scriptures in defense of his profession. Shylock and the other Jewish moneylenders are essential to the prosperity of the mercantile Venetian community, but they are also outcasts as human beings and as Jews. The Christians ridicule and hate the Jewish moneylenders and are known even to spit upon them. In fact, Antonio has spit upon Shylock and called him a dog. These acts of religious intolerance cause Antonio many problems, for Shylock wants revenge and almost gets it in the course of the play.

Money and its pursuit is not condemned in the play, for Antonio and Portia are wealthy characters with virtues that are praised. Instead, peoples' attitude about money is all important. Shylock is condemned because he loves money for money's sake and tries to grab more money from people by charging exorbitant interest rates on his loans. He is so obsessed by his wealth that he is as sad over losing it as he is over losing his daughter. In contrast, Antonio and Portia are generous with their money. Antonio lends to the poor without charging any interest and is always willing to financially aid a friend in need. In a like manner, Portia freely offers money to save the life of Antonio, when she has not even met the gentleman. The Christians in the play seems to have the right relationship to their wealth. They use it to enhance the quality of life.

The value of love, both platonic and romantic, is another theme of the play. Antonio cares so deeply for his friend Bassanio that he borrows money for him and pledges his own life if he fails to repay the loan. Bassanio risks his all for the love of Portia. Portia wishes that she were a thousand times richer solely so that she could serve Bassanio better. She also dresses up as a young lawyer and defends Antonio, who she cares about for the sake of Bassanio. Jessica gives up her family ties to marry Lorenzo. Even Gratiano and Nerissa are devoted to one another. The play is truly about the happiness that true love brings.

In the play, set in the mercantile and trade-governed atmosphere of Venice, the value of property is also important. Both Antonio and Shylock are devoted to the pursuit of commercial gains. Their approach to their property is quite different; Shylock's greed and avarice are given their just punishment, while Antonio's generosity and kindness are justly rewarded.

The difference between justice and mercy is an important part of the play. The society of Venice had a strict sense of hierarchy that allowed for its ordered existence. It also depended on outside trade for its prosperity; therefore, business relations had to be based on strict interpretations of the law that were closely followed and enforced. At Antonio's hearing, justice is the primary moving force. The risk of losing the confidence of the traders prevents the Duke from altering the strict interpretation of the law. The traders would be encouraged to conduct their transactions in Venice only if the law and a fair system of justice protected their business.

Portia, disguised as a wise lawyer, knows she cannot tamper with the law, for it would set a wrong precedent. Instead, she must find a law to strictly interpret and use for Antonio's benefit. She finds such a law and uses it against Shylock. The Jew has no defense, since he has called for absolute justice without mercy, and promoted the strict interpretation of the law against Antonio. Now he must accept the just interpretation of the law against him. He must give up his wealth and stand before the Duke who can use justice or mercy on him.

Both the Duke and Antonio are merciful to Shylock. His life is spared, not because of justice, but because of mercy, and even his wealth will not be totally lost, but go to his heirs. The trial, therefore, becomes a clear example of the difference between justice and mercy. The value of mercy is one of the important themes of the play.

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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Book Notes


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