1. Antonio offers to act as Bassanio’s guarantor (Act 1, Scene 1)
Antonio, a prosperous Venetian merchant, is unable to explain his sadness to his friends, who suggest he must have business or love worries. When Bassanio arrives with Lorenzo and Gratiano, he asks his close friend Antonio to lend him some more money. Bassanio explains that he needs the money to woo a wealthy heiress, Portia, in Belmont. Antonio is unable to advance Bassanio cash because all his money is invested in ships at sea but he gladly offers to guarantee a credit loan.
2. Antonio and Bassanio negotiate a bond with Shylock (Act 1 Scene 3)
Bassanio approaches the Jewish money-lender, Shylock, for a loan of three thousand ducats for three months with Antonio as guarantor. Shylock is doubtful because all of Antonio’s wealth is tied up in ships still at sea but he also nurtures a deep-seated hatred of Antonio, who he condemns for lending money without interest, which undermines Shylock’s business. Religion is another source of conflict: Shylock is a Jew while Antonio is a Christian.
When Antonio arrives, Shylock is polite but reminds him how he has criticised him for his money lending and insulted his Jewish faith. Antonio insists that he is making an exception for Bassanio because he doesn’t usually lend or borrow. Shylock agrees to the loan to his one-time enemy and to demonstrate his new friendship offers to waive interest charges. However, Shylock suggests “in a merry sport” that if Antonio fails to pay back the loan in time, he will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh as the penalty. All parties agree to meet at a notary’s office, where the bond will be legally drawn up and signed. Antonio thinks Shylock has been generous but Bassanio mistrusts him, arguing that he’s still a villain at heart. Antonio tells his friend not to worry because his ships will return a month before the bond expires, so the debt will easily be repaid.
3. Gobbo deserts his master, Shylock, for Bassanio (Act 2 Scene 2)
Lancelet Gobbo is debating with himself whether he should leave his master, the ‘fiend’ and ‘devil’ Shylock, when he meets his blind father, Old Gobbo, who fails to recognise him. Young Gobbo pretends to be some-one else and tells his father that Lancelet is dead. After much confusion, Lancelet confesses his true identity and explains that he has run away from Shylock. He tells his father to give the present meant for Shylock to Bassanio instead. Bassanio enters the scene, receives Old Gobbo’s present and agrees to take on Lancelet as his servant. Bassanio issues orders for his departure to Belmont and warns Gratiano to moderate his behaviour if he wants to accompany him.
4. Jessica elopes with Lorenzo (Act 2 Scene 6)
In the darkness, Gratiano and Salerio wait outside Shylock’s house for Lorenzo, who is late. When Lorenzo arrives he calls out to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who throws down a casket of money and jewels from the house. Disguised as a boy, Jessica joins her lover Lorenzo in the street and they leave for the masque. Gratiano parts from his companions to accompany Bassanio on the voyage to Belmont.
5. Shylock is the victim of intolerance (Act 3 Scene 1)
When Shylock sees Solanio and Salerio, he accuses them of being involved in Jessica’ elopement. They taunt Shylock and tell him of Antonio’s losses but he retaliates with a passionate speech about the wrongs he has suffered as Jew at the expense of Antonio. Movingly he explains that a Jew is the same as other men with the same feelings and needs. Tubal arrives and tells Shylock that he hasn’t found Jessica but he has heard that she has been spending her father’s money freely. Tubal also informs him that Antonio has lost another ship, which causes Shylock to veer between delight at his enemy’s losses and despair at his own misfortunes.
6. Bassanio chooses his casket and discovers his fortune (Act 3 Scene 2)
In Belmont, Portia urges Bassanio to wait a day or two before choosing the casket, which will determine whether he can marry her or not, but he is determined to proceed. To the accompaniment of music, Bassanio selects from the gold, silver and lead caskets. He opts for the lead casket which contains Portia’s portrait, thereby winning both her hand in marriage and her fortune. Portia gives Bassanio a ring to seal the match and makes him promise never to part with it. Gratiano confesses that he is love with Nerissa, Portia’s companion, so he is given permission to marry her.
Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio arrive from Venice with a letter for Bassanio from Antonio, in which he explains that he is ruined and Shylock is determined to exact his revenge by demanding his pound of flesh according to the bond. Seeing Bassanio’s distress, Portia suggests that they marry immediately but defer the celebrations until he has saved Antonio. She suggests that they settle with Shylock, even if that means paying him twenty time the value of the bond. Bassanio leaves for Venice but vows to return with all speed.
7. Shylock demands justice (Act 4 Scene 1)
The Duke presides over the courtroom in Venice, where Shylock demands the penalty from Antonio for defaulting on the bond. Shylock is immune to the pleas of the Duke and Antonio’s friends for mercy and Antonio is resolved to die. Shylock resolutely demands justice according Venetian law. The Duke has sent for Bellario, a legal expert from Padua, but learns from a letter that he is ill so has sent a young man, Balthasar, in his place. Portia, disguised as Balthasar, enters the courtroom accompanied by her clerk (Nerissa in disguise).
Portia/Balthasar advises Shylock to be merciful but when he declines, the young lawyer asserts that Shylock is within his rights to have his bond Shylock refuses Bassanio’s offer of more money for the bond, demanding his pound of flesh from Antonio. He refuses the request for a surgeon to be present because it’s not mentioned in the bond. Bassanio bids farewell to Antonio, who is told to prepare himself for the penalty. As Shylock prepares to cut Antonio’s flesh, Portia/Balthasar tells him to wait and reminds him that according to the wording of the bond, he must take exactly one pound of flesh but no blood. Outwitted, Shylock prepares to leave the courtroom but is called back to face the penalty for threatening the life of a Venetian citizen. He will be executed and all his goods will be divided between Antonio and the state and unless he asks the Duke for mercy. The Duke spares Shylock’s life and reduces the fine. Antonio returns his share of Shylock’s goods on the condition that he converts to Christianity and bequeaths his wealth to Jessica and her new husband, Lorenzo. Shylock agrees and leaves the courtroom.
Despite the Duke’s request to join him for dinner, Portia/Balthasar insists that she/he needs to return to Padua and refuses to accept a fee of three thousand ducats. Bassanio, unaware of Balthasar’s real identity, insists that he should accept some payment, so Portia asks for his gloves and ring. Bassanio explains that he promised his wife never to part with the ring but Antonio urges him to hand it over, so reluctantly he gives it to Gratiano to deliver to Balthasar.
8. Friends and lovers are reconciled (Act 5 Scene 2)
Lorenzo and Jessica have been left in charge of Belmont during Portia’ absence. A messenger arrives to tell them that Portia and Nerissa will be with them presently. Lancelet Gobbo informs them that Bassano and Gratiano will also be home soon. Lorenzo orders music and light to welcome back his friends. When Portia and Nerissa arrive, Lorenzo and Jessica promise not to mention their absence. Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio arrive and are welcomed by Portia. Nerissa and Gratiano quarrel over the ring which he gave to ‘the judge’s clerk’. Gratiano also reveals that Bassanio gave his ring to Balthasar. Both husbands are accused of giving their rings to other women. Portia and Nerissa give the rings back to their husbands and explain the deception, producing a letter from Bellario and another for Antonio with the good news that three of his ships have safely reached harbour. Lorenzo and Jessica learn that they are beneficiaries of Shylock’s new will. The three pairs of lovers are happy but Antonio remains a lonely figure despite the restoration of his wealth.