Scene by Scene

Here is a more detailed look at what happens in each scene of The Merchant of Venice, to help you look at the structure of the play and interrogate it.

As you look at each act we’ve included some things to notice. These are important character developments, or key questions that an acting company might ask when they first go through the play together at the start of rehearsal. If you work through these as you go, they will help you to make sense of the play. It’s a good idea to have a copy of the text nearby!

  • Act 1

    Act 1 Scene 1

    The play opens with Antonio, a Venetian merchant, sharing with his friends Salerio and Solanio that he feels ‘sad’, but does not know why. His friends suggest that he is either worried about his ships, which are ‘tossing on the ocean’ and full of valuable goods, or that he is ‘in love’. Antonio rejects both of these ideas and Salerio and Solanio leave when Bassanio, (Antonio’s ‘noble kinsman’) arrives. Bassanio admits to Antonio that he has run out of his own money and is in need of resources so that he can go to Belmont and woo Portia, an heiress. Antonio commits to helping Bassanio and promises that he will find someone to lend him the money, which he will then give to Bassanio.

    What do we learn?

    • There seems to be no specific cause of Antonio’s sadness and the source of it is a mystery.
    • Bassanio wants to woo Portia, but lacks the means to go to Belmont and be considered a worthy suitor.
    • Antonio and Bassanio are very close friends and even though Antonio has no readily available money, he is keen to help his friend if he can.

    Act 1 Scene 2

    In Belmont, the heiress Portia and her waiting woman and friend Nerissa discuss the intriguing ‘lottery’ that Portia’s father devised before his death. Portia is unable to choose her own husband and instead any suitor wishing to marry Portia must pick one of three caskets. One is made of lead, one of silver and one of gold. If the suitor chooses the casket that holds a portrait of Portia, then they win her hand in marriage. Portia and Nerissa discuss the men who have recently visited Belmont on this quest and Portia wittily dismisses them all as unappealing, until Nerissa reminds her of when she once met ‘a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier’, who both ladies agree is ‘the best deserving a fair lady’.

    What do we learn?

    • Portia is a smart, witty woman who has her own thoughts and opinions but is trapped by her father’s will.
    • So far all of the suitors have been both disliked by Portia and have failed at the casket challenge.
    • Portia and Bassanio have met before, when her father was alive. Both Portia and Nerissa agree that he is a much more appealing man that the suitors who have visited recently.

    Act 1 Scene 3

    Back in Venice, Bassanio meets Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, from whom he asks for a loan of ‘three thousand ducats for three months’. In return, Antonio shall be ‘bound’ to repay the loan. In an aside to the audience, Shylock admits that he hates Antonio for numerous reasons. When Antonio arrives, Shylock reminds him of how badly he’s been treated by Antonio in the past (‘you call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog’), although he does agree to lend Antonio the money.

    However, if Antonio does not repay him by the appointed day then Shylock will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio doesn’t want his friend to agree to this, although Antonio is confident that his ships will have returned ‘a month before the day’ and so he’ll be able to repay Shylock. Antonio agrees to ‘seal unto this bond’.

    What do we learn?

    • There is a history of animosity between Antonio and Shylock.
    • Both Antonio and Shylock are prejudiced against each other because of their different religions and conflicting business interests.
    • Bassanio is wary of Antonio agreeing to this bond, but Antonio is very keen to help his friend and confident that he will be in a position to repay Shylock within three months.

    Things to notice in Act 1

    • In Scene 1 we meet Antonio and Bassanio. What indication is there that they are close friends?

    • Notice how Shylock and Antonio talk to each other. Can you identify the reasons why they dislike each other so much?

    • Prejudice and how we view other people is an important theme in the play. Consider the way Portia and Nerissa discuss the suitors. What does this reveal about how they view certain men?

    • Act 1 is important because it sets up the characters and their current situations. What do you think is the most important detail Shakespeare gives you about each character in this act of the play? What are the potential problems or dilemmas that each of them faces?

  • Act 2

    Act 2 Scene 1

    In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco tries to woo Portia and asks her not to disregard him on account of his dark ‘complexion’. Portia reminds the Prince that she cannot choose her own husband, but instead she will be won by whoever succeeds in the task left by her father. The Prince asks her to lead him to the caskets immediately. Portia tells him that they will go after dinner and that before he chooses he must swear to never marry anyone at all if he chooses the wrong casket.

    What do we learn?

    • The Prince assumes that Portia is likely to be prejudiced towards him because of his dark skin.
    • Portia is able to be tactful in avoiding discussing her own true feelings towards suitors by reminding them that she is ‘hedged’ in by her father’s will.
    • The challenge left by her father incurs a strict penalty on anyone who chooses incorrectly.

    Act 2 Scene 2

    ‘The Clown’, Lancelet Gobbo, delivers a speech in which he admits that he is considering running away from his master, Shylock. He says Shylock is a ‘fiend’ and a ‘kind of devil’. He comes to the conclusion that he ‘will run’, but is stopped by the arrival of Old Gobbo, his blind father. Old Gobbo asks Lancelet for directions towards Shylock’s house. Lancelet plays a trick on his father by pretending to be someone else, giving Gobbo the wrong directions and pretending that Lancelet is dead. When he finally reveals to his father who he is, Gobbo shares his decision to leave Shylock.

    Bassanio then enters and Lancelet asks if he can serve him instead. Bassanio has already agreed to this previously, but he confirms it and also agrees to let his friend Gratiano come to Belmont on the condition that he tames his usually wild and rude behaviour.

    What do we learn?

    • There are other characters in the play who are prejudiced towards Shylock.
    • Bassanio has no worries about taking Shylock’s servant into his own service.
    • Although we don’t yet know his motives, Gratiano is so keen to come to Belmont that he is prepared to behave in a discreet and modest manner.

    Act 2 Scene 3

    Shylock’s daughter Jessica says goodbye to Lancelet, who she is very sorry to see leave. She asks him to deliver a letter to Lorenzo, who she knows is having supper at Bassanio’s later and gives him some money. Lancelet bids her a tearful farewell. Jessica then admits that she is ‘ashamed’ to be her father’s daughter and that she hopes her beloved Lorenzo will stick to his promise of marrying her so she can become ‘a Christian' and his ‘loving wife’.

    What do we learn?

    • Jessica and Lancelet have a close relationship, despite his hatred for her father, Shylock.
    • Jessica dislikes her father.
    • Jessica has been secretly courting a Christian, Lorenzo.

    Act 2 Scene 4

    Lorenzo and his friends (Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano) discuss their plan to disguise themselves as masquers and help Jessica to escape from Shylock’s house. Lancelet delivers Jessica’s letter to Lorenzo, who gives Lancelet money and asks him to tell Jessica that he ‘will not fail her’. Lorenzo shares the contents of Jessica’s letter with Gratiano, which says she’ll be dressed as a page and has money and jewels that she’ll bring with her.

    What do we learn?

    • Lorenzo has enlisted a group of friends to help him to elope with Jessica.
    • Unlike Portia, who follows the rules set by her father, Jessica is prepared to break convention and run away.
    • Jessica has an elaborate plan in place, which involves dressing as a boy and taking money and jewels from her father.

    Act 2 Scene 5

    Shylock instructs Lancelet to use his eyes to be the ‘judge’ of the difference between himself and Bassanio before calling for Jessica. He informs her that he is going out for supper, gives her the keys to the house and tells her to ‘look to [his] house’ and ‘lock up [his] doors’. Shylock is aware that a masque will be taking place that night, but he also there is some ‘ill a-brewing’ as he dreamt ‘of money bags tonight’, which he considers to be a bad omen.

    What do we learn?

    • Shylock is insecure about the safety and security of his house and possessions.
    • He believes that dreams can hold symbolic meaning.
    • At this point in the play, Shylock trusts Jessica and isn’t aware of her plans to run away.

    Act 2 Scene 6

    Gratiano and Salerio arrive at Shylock’s house, as instructed by Lorenzo. They are concerned that he is late since they think lovers are usually particularly punctual as they are keen to ‘seal love’s bonds’. When Lorenzo eventually arrives he calls up for Jessica, who appears disguised as a boy. She is embarrassed about her clothes, but Lorenzo reassures her that it doesn’t matter and she needs to come straight away. She throws down a casket of money, before going to fetch more ducats and then exits with Lorenzo and Salerio. Antonio arrives and finds Gratiano. Antonio tells Gratiano that he must sail to Belmont with Bassanio tonight as ‘the wind is come about’.

    What do we learn?

    • Jessica is not afraid of stealing money from her father.
    • She is concerned about how Lorenzo will react to her outward appearance in the disguise.
    • Antonio is keen to help Gratiano get to Belmont with Bassanio.

    Act 2 Scene 7

    In Belmont Portia shows the three caskets to the Prince of Morocco. He must choose either the gold one (which bears the inscription ‘who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire’), the silver (with the inscription ‘who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserve’) or the lead (‘who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath’). He deliberates and then picks the gold. When he unlocks the casket the Prince discovers a skull and a scroll with the warning ‘all that glisters is not gold.’ He is so ‘grieved’ that he leaves immediately.

    What do we learn?

    • Although he asked Portia not to make judgements based on outward appearance, the Prince judges the gold casket to be the correct one because it is outwardly more attractive than the lead.
    • The gold casket is not the one that contains Portia’s portrait, so it must be in the silver or the lead.

    Act 2 Scene 8

    Salerio tells Solanio that Bassanio and Gratiano have left on a ship and that he is sure that Lorenzo is not on it. Solanio describes how Shylock and the Duke of Venice went to search Bassanio’s ship, but arrived too late. He also scathingly reports Shylock’s response to the discovery of Jessica’s elopement, who he says cried ‘My daughter! O, my ducats! O, my daughter!’ in the streets. Solanio expresses his hope that Antonio returns Shylock’s money on time as he’s worried that ‘he shall pay’ if not. Salerio’s concern stems from the news that a ship possibly holding some of Antonio’s goods has been lost at sea.

    What do we learn?

    • Shylock was extremely distressed when he discovered that Jessica and his money were missing and alerted the Duke of Venice to help him search for her.
    • From Salanio’s report of Shylock’s response, it appears that Shylock was equally as upset by the loss of his money as he was by the loss of his child.
    • There is a possibility that one of Antonio’s ships has perished at sea.

    Act 2 Scene 9

    The Prince of Aragon is in Belmont to try and win Portia’s hand in marriage. She shows him the three caskets and reminds him of the terms of the challenge. The Prince considers the options and picks the silver one. When he opens the casket he discovers ‘the portrait of a blinking idiot’ and swiftly takes his leave.

    A messenger arrives and tells Portia that ‘a young Venetian’ is at the gate and that he has brought ‘gifts of rich value’. Both Portia and Nerissa are curious to see who it is and Nerissa hopes that it is Bassanio.

    What do we learn?

    • Portia’s portrait is not in the silver casket, meaning that it must be in the lead one.
    • If the visitor is indeed Bassanio, then he has spent some of the money from Shylock (via Antonio) on presents for Portia.
    • Portia is intrigued by the Messenger’s description of the man who has been sent ahead of the next suitor.

    Things to notice in Act 2

    • The Prince of Morocco thinks that Portia will be prejudiced against him because of the colour of his skin. Is there any evidence to suggest that this is the case?

    • Lancelet is another character who strongly dislikes Shylock. What kind of picture of Shylock does he create with his description of his boss?

    • We meet Jessica, Shylock’s daughter. From what Jessica and Shylock say about each other and the way in which they interact, what do you learn about the nature of their relationship?

    • Act 2 is important because it furthers our understanding of the characters and their relationships. The people in Venice are closely linked in numerous ways. How are they linked? Are all of the relationships positive?

  • Act 3

    Act 3 Scene 1

    Solanio and Salerio discuss the news that another of Antonio’s ships has been lost. Shylock arrives and accuses them of being complicit in Jessica’s elopement. They insult him and ask if he has heard the news about Antonio’s ‘loss at sea’. Shylock cares only that Antonio will ‘look to his bond’. Salerio doubts that Shylock will go through with taking Antonio’s flesh and asks what it would be ‘good for?’

    Shylock replies with ‘to bait fish’ and once again explains how terribly Antonio has treated him in the past, which leads him to ask ‘what’s his reason?’ and point out that although he is of a different religion to Antonio, he also has ‘hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions’ and is just as much of a human being as a Christian; ‘if you prick us do we not bleed?’ One of Antonio’s messengers then arrives to summon Solanio and Salerio. Shylock and Tubal discuss the ring Jessica now has, which belonged to her late mother. Shylock tells Tubal how valuable it is to him.

    What do we learn?

    • The chance of Antonio being able to pay Shylock back on time has got smaller now that more of his ships have been lost.
    • Shylock explicitly reveals that he wants ‘revenge’ on Antonio for how he has been treated in the past.
    • Shylock passionately believes that Jews and Christians are essentially equal human beings.

    Act 3 Scene 2

    Back in Belmont, Bassanio is about to choose one of the caskets, but Portia asks him to ‘pause a day or two’ so that she won’t ‘lose [his] company’ if he chooses wrong. She admits that she could teach him how to pick the correct casket, but is reluctant to do so as then she would be ‘forsworn’. Bassanio is desperate to make his choice immediately since the present state of uncertainty is as torturous as being ‘upon the rack’. Portia calls for music to play whilst Bassanio makes his decision. Bassanio deliberates and then opts for the lead casket, in which he discovers Portia’s portrait. Both Portia and Bassanio are overjoyed that he chose correctly. Portia kisses him and gives him a ring, which if he loses will ‘presage the ruin of [his] love’. Gratiano then asks Bassanio if he is allowed to marry as he has fallen in love with Nerissa. Bassanio agrees to the match.

    Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio then arrive and give Bassanio a letter. In the letter Bassanio discovers that all of Antonio’s ‘ventures failed’ and he explains to Portia that he had no wealth of his own, but borrowed money from Antonio, his ‘dearest friend’. Salerio and Jessica explain that Shylock is now determined to ‘have Antonio’s flesh’. Portia offers to pay Shylock double what Antonio owed and after hearing Antonio’s letter, urges Bassanio to travel swiftly to his friend.

    What do we learn?

    • At the beginning of the scene Portia is evidently really torn between wanting Bassanio to choose the right casket and not breaking the terms of her father’s will by telling him which to choose.
    • This is the first suitor who she genuinely wants to marry.
    • Bassanio becomes ‘bound’ to Portia through their forthcoming marriage, but also because she gives him a symbolic ring.
    • All of Antonio’s ships are lost and so he is unable to pay Shylock back.
    • Portia is prepared to do whatever she can to help Antonio as he is such a close friend of Bassanio’s.

    Act 3 Scene 3

    Antonio is in jail and Shylock obsessively repeats that he will have his bond. Solanio doubts that the Duke will let Shylock go ahead with claiming the pound of flesh, but Antonio is convinced that ‘the Duke cannot deny the course of law’. He sends Solanio away and prays that Bassanio will come and visit him.

    What do we learn?

    • Shylock appears more determined than ever to get his bond.
    • It would be ‘unlawful’ for the Duke to stop Shylock.
    • Antonio has resolved himself to the consequences of the deal, but hopes that he gets to see Bassanio once more.

    Act 3 Scene 4

    Lorenzo tells Portia how ‘true a gentlemen’ Antonio is and that if she knew him, she’d be even prouder of her willingness to help him. Portia replies that since Antonio and Bassanio are so close, in her eyes she is saving Bassanio if she saves Antonio. She then announces that she has decided to withdraw to a monastery ‘to live in prayer and contemplation’ with Nerissa until both of their husbands return. She says that Lorenzo and Jessica can take the place of herself and Lord Bassanio at Belmont while she is away.

    After Lorenzo and Jessica leave, Portia instructs Balthasar to deliver a letter to her cousin, Doctor Bellario, in Mantua and to bring back the ‘notes and garments’ that Bellario gives to him. Balthasar leaves with the letter and Portia reveals to Nerissa that they will dress up as men and go to Venice.

    What do we learn?

    • Lorenzo has enormous admiration for Antonio.
    • Portia seems willing to help Bassanio’s friends, whether she has met them or not. Her motives for this are open to interpretation.
    • Portia has hatched a plan, which involves some secrecy and disguises!

    Act 3 Scene 5

    Lancelet teases Jessica, saying that he’s scared that she has inherited the sins of her father and that she is ‘damned’. He expresses his hope that she’s in fact not Shylock’s daughter but Jessica points out that that would make her a ‘bastard’ and then she might inherit the sins of her mother, making her ‘damned by both father and mother’. Jessica points out that she thinks she’ll be ‘saved’ by her husband as she’s now become a Christian, like him.

    Lorenzo arrives and interrupts their conversation, announcing that Lancelet has got a woman pregnant before instructing him to get dinner ready. Lorenzo asks Jessica what she thinks of Portia and she expresses her admiration for Portia.

    What do we learn?

    • Lancelet seems to have a lot of affection for Jessica, despite not liking her father.
    • Lancelet has been having an affair with someone he isn’t married to.
    • Both Lorenzo and Jessica agree that they like Portia a great deal.

    Things to notice in Act 3

    • Look at how Shakespeare begins to reveal the news of Antonio’s lost ships. Why is this important? How does this build tension and suspense?

    • Notice the way in which Shylock’s determination to have his ‘bond’ intensifies. How does this shape your opinion of Shylock? What more do we learn about his motivation? How does Jessica’s elopement affect him?

    • Notice how Portia talks to Bassanio before he chooses the casket. How can you tell that she likes him? Is there ever a point that you think Bassanio might not choose the correct casket? Why do you think Portia calls for music?

    • Act 3 is important because it builds the tension and the drama. What do you think are the most dramatic moments in this act and why? Why do you think Shakespeare includes the caskets and how do Portia and Bassanio differ in their approach to it?

  • Act 4

    Act 4 Scene 1

    In a court in Venice, the Duke expresses his regret that Antonio is ‘come to answer’ such an ‘inhumane wretch’ but Antonio says he understands that ‘no lawful means’ will help him escape. Bassanio offers to pay Shylock double the amount he lent to Antonio but Shylock refuses and claims that he just wants justice.


    The Duke announces that he has sent for ‘Bellario, a learned doctor’, to judge the case. Nerissa, disguised as male lawyer’s clerk, arrives and gives a letter to the Duke. The letter says that Bellario is too sick to come, but that he is sending a ‘young doctor of Rome’ called Balthasar to oversee the trial. Portia then arrives, disguised as Balthasar. She delivers a speech on how mercy cannot be forced before stating that ‘there is no power in Venice’ which will be able to override Shylock’s bond and Shylock is delighted. However, Portia then draws attention to the fact that there is no mention of blood in the bond and that if Shylock causes Antonio to lose even ‘one drop of Christian blood’ then his ‘lands and goods’ will be confiscated by the state of Venice. Shylock realises that it will be impossible to take the flesh without blood and offers to ‘let the Christian go’ if he receives money instead. Portia refuses this deal and declares that Shylock can have his bond or nothing else.


    Shylock realises that he has been defeated and wishes to leave, but Portia won't let him go. She announces that ‘in the laws of Venice’ if any alien is proved to have tried to kill one of its citizens then their goods will be seized and one half will be given to the victim and the other half will go to ‘the privy coffer of the state’. Moreover, the Duke will decide if the offender lives or dies. The Duke of Venice declares that he will let Shylock live but that half of his wealth must be given to Antonio and the other half will go to the state. Antonio says if Shylock converts to Christianity and leaves his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo when he dies, then he can keep his half. Shylock agrees and departs.


    The Duke asks ‘Balthasar’ to join him for dinner, but Portia refuses. The Duke tells Antonio that he must reward ‘Balthasar’, but Portia refuses all money, asking for Bassanio's ring as a reward instead. Bassanio does not recognise Portia and refuses to hand it over telling ‘Balthasar’ that it was a gift that he vowed never to ‘sell, nor give, nor lose’. Antonio then persuades Bassanio to give ‘Balthasar’ the ring.

    What do we learn?

    • The Duke is on Antonio’s side and dislikes Shylock.
    • Under the guise of being a male lawyer, Portia demonstrates her intelligence and understanding of Venetian law.
    • Bassanio and Gratiano fail to recognise their wives.
    • Bassanio does not initially break his promise to Portia and hand over the ring, but is convinced to do so by Antonio.

    Act 4 Scene 2

    Still dressed in their disguises, Portia asks Nerissa to deliver the legal documents to Shylock. Gratiano catches up with Portia and gives her Bassanio’s ring (thinking she is ‘Balthasar’ the lawyer). Nerissa then tells Portia that she’s going to see if she can persuade Gratiano to give her his ring, even though she had made him swear to keep it when she initially gave it to him.

    What do we learn?

    • Portia’s ring has now been returned to her, while dressed as ‘Balthasar’.
    • Nerissa wants to see whether her husband goes back on his promises, like Bassanio did.

    Things to Notice in Act 4

    • A number of characters ask Shylock to show Antonio mercy. Look at who tries to dissuade him from claiming his bond. What arguments do they use? Who do you find to be most convincing?

    • Look at how the power and status shifts in the scene. Who holds the most power at the start and why? Is this the same at the end or has it changed?

    • This scene is full of twists and turns. Can you track the journey of Shylock’s ups and downs? Where does he think he is most likely to get the flesh? What happens when Balthasar intervenes?

    • Look at the way in which Portia and Nerissa test Bassanio and Gratiano by asking for their rings. Why do you think they do this?

    • Act 4 is important as we reach the dramatic climax of the plot. Shylock and Antonio come face to face in the court room and Shylock is ready to carve the flesh from the merchant. Ultimately Antonio is saved and Shylock is punished. Do you think the punishment issued to Shylock is fair?

  • Act 5

    Act 5 Scene 1

    Lorenzo and Jessica are in Belmont. They talk about famous classical lovers as they look at the moonlit sky. They then learn that Portia and Bassanio are both on their way back, separately. Portia and Nerissa get there first and instruct Lorenzo to tell everyone that they never left Belmont. Bassanio and Gratiano then arrive, along with Antonio and others. Portia welcomes her husband home and Bassanio introduces her to Antonio. Nerissa and Gratiano instantly start arguing about the ring that Nerissa gave to Gratiano and which she has noticed he no longer has.

    Gratiano then reveals that Bassanio also gave his ring away and Portia declares that she will not share a bed with Bassanio until she sees the ring again. Bassanio tries to get Portia to understand why he gave it away, but she continues to scold him for being unfaithful. Antonio attempts to intervene to get Portia to sympathise with Bassanio. She then gives him ‘another’ ring, which tells him to look after ‘better than the other’. Bassanio realises that it is the same ring that he gave away. Nerissa then gets out her ring before Portia confesses that ‘Portia was the doctor’ and Nerissa was the clerk. She also gives Antonio a letter which tells him that three of his ships have made it safely into the harbour. Nerissa shares the news that Jessica and Lorenzo will receive Shylock’s wealth when he dies. Portia and Nerissa seem to forgive their husbands and the play concludes with Antonio alive and wealthy once more.

    What do we learn?

    • Bassanio and Gratiano had no idea at all that their wives were the lawyers in disguise.
    • Although Portia and Nerissa are angry at Bassanio and Gratiano for giving away their rings, they seem prepared to forgive them.
    • Antonio, the Merchant who gives the play its title, is a lonely figure at the end and there are questions raised about how successful the relationships between the three couples will be.

    Things to Notice in Act 5

    • Look at the way Lorenzo and Jessica talk to each other at the start of the act. What is the significance of the allusions that they make? Where do these references come from?

    • Notice that Lorenzo immediately recognises Portia’s voice when she returns to Belmont. What do you make of the fact that Bassanio and Gratiano didn’t recognise their wives at court? How do they respond when they discover that they were the lawyer and the clerk?

    • Act 5 is important because it ties up all of the loose strings and resolves the plot. The play seems to end positively for the three couples (Portia and Bassanio; Nerissa and Gratiano; Lorenzo and Jessica), but is it a completely happy ending for everyone? What suggestions are there that these relationships, and other characters in the play, may not be successful in the future?