The play was written between 1594 and 1598 (see bottom: Establishing the order of Shakespeare's plays),
a time of his greatest success when he also wrote Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Summary of the play:
The play has two main plots which are closely connected with each other:
1. The casket story involving Portia, the rich Belmont heiress, and Bassanio, her suitor;
2. The bond storyinvolving Shylock, a Jewish money-lender and Antonio, a Venetian merchant.
The casket story deals with Portia who is forced by her father's will to marry only the one who chooses
the correct casket from a choice of three (leaden, silver and golden). But the only one she favours
is Bassanio. As he does not have a penny to win the hand of Portia, he turns to his friend Antonio
who he asks to borrow him 3000 ducats. As bad luck would have it, Antonio does not have the money needed,
as his resources are all tied up in his merchant ships at sea.
Being a helpful friend to Bassanio, Antonio turns to Shylock and asks him for the 3000 ducats. Shylock,
however, only agrees to lend him the money, if he draws up a special agrreement with him - a bond (bond
With the borrowed money Bassanio wins the hand of Portia by picking the right casket, but the joy doesn't
last long because Antonio's trading ships are supposedly wrecked at sea.
Shylock insists on the bond, i.e. he demands a pound from Antonio's flesh under Antonio's, Bassanio's
and Portia's protests. Thereupon the Jew takes Antonio to court where he insists on his bond with Antonio.
In a moving speech on mercy, Portia disguised as a lawyer accuses Shylock of attempting murder and only by promising
to turn Christian, Shylock is spared his life.
Excerpt THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
Excerpt from Act IV, Scene 1
Venice: A court of justice.
This excerpt provides an example of blank verse.
Is your name Shylock?
Shylock is my name.
Of a strange nature is the suit you follow;
Yet in such rule that the Venetian law
Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.
You stand within his danger, do you not?
Ay, so he says.
Do you confess the bond?
Then must the Jew be merciful.
On what compulsion must I? tell me that.
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath; it is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
A more general appreciation of Shakespeare's life, work and stage offers Wilfried Brusch in:
The preceding textbook may also be at the core of your coursework. If you choose it, there are also
Teacher's Notes to it:
How have literary scholars established the order of Shakespeare's plays?
There are three main guidelines which they took advantage of:
1. the various records of performances;
2. the printed editions (quartos and folios);
3. unmistakable references to current events as they crop up in the plays.
The effect of the information gathered in this way is generally to establish two dates between a given
play must have been written.
In Hamlet, for instance, there is a scene in which there is a reference to the vogue of children's performances (1600).
And in 1603 a very bad edition of Hamlet was published. These two facts indicate that the play must have been
written between 1600 and 1603.