A Jewish moneylender in Venice. Angered by his mistreatment at the hands of Venice’s Christians, particularly Antonio, Shylock schemes to eke out his revenge by ruthlessly demanding as payment a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Although seen by the rest of the play’s characters as an inhuman monster, Shylock at times diverges from stereotype and reveals himself to be quite human. These contradictions, and his eloquent expressions of hatred, have earned Shylock a place as one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters.
A wealthy heiress from Belmont. Portia’s beauty is matched only by her intelligence. Bound by a clause in her father’s will that forces her to marry whichever suitor chooses correctly among three caskets, Portia is nonetheless able to marry her true love, Bassanio. Far and away the most clever of the play’s characters, it is Portia, in the disguise of a young law clerk, who saves Antonio from Shylock’s knife.
The merchant whose love for his friend Bassanio prompts him to sign Shylock’s contract and almost lose his life. Antonio is something of a mercurial figure, often inexplicably melancholy and, as Shylock points out, possessed of an incorrigible dislike of Jews. Nonetheless, Antonio is beloved of his friends and proves merciful to Shylock, albeit with conditions.
Although she is Shylock’s daughter, Jessica hates life in her father’s house, and elopes with the young Christian gentleman, Lorenzo. The fate of her soul is often in doubt: the play’s characters wonder if her marriage can overcome the fact that she was born a Jew, and we wonder if her sale of a ring given to her father by her mother is excessively callous.
A gentleman of Venice, and a kinsman and dear friend to Antonio. Bassanio’s love for the wealthy Portia leads him to borrow money from Shylock with Antonio as his guarantor. An ineffectual businessman, Bassanio proves himself a worthy suitor, correctly identifying the casket that contains Portia’s portrait.
A friend of Bassanio’s who accompanies him to Belmont. A coarse and garrulous young man, Gratiano is Shylock’s most vocal and insulting critic during the trial. While Bassanio courts Portia, Gratiano falls in love with and eventually weds Portia’s lady-in-waiting, Nerissa.
A friend of Bassanio and Antonio, Lorenzo is in love with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. He schemes to help Jessica escape from her father’s house, and he eventually elopes with her to Belmont.
Portia’s lady-in-waiting and confidante. She marries Gratiano and escorts Portia on Portia’s trip to Venice by disguising herself as her law clerk.
Bassanio’s servant. A comical, clownish figure who is especially adept at making puns, Launcelot leaves Shylock’s service in order to work for Bassanio.
The prince of Morocco
A Moorish prince who seeks Portia’s hand in marriage. The prince of Morocco asks Portia to ignore his dark countenance and seeks to win her by picking one of the three caskets. Certain that the caskets reflect Portia’s beauty and stature, the prince of Morocco picks the gold chest, which proves to be incorrect.
The prince of Arragon
An arrogant Spanish nobleman who also attempts to win Portia’s hand by picking a casket. Like the prince of Morocco, however, the prince of Arragon chooses unwisely. He picks the silver casket, which gives him a message calling him an idiot instead of Portia’s hand.
A Venetian gentleman, and friend to Antonio, Bassanio, and Lorenzo. Salarino escorts the newlyweds Jessica and Lorenzo to Belmont, and returns with Bassanio and Gratiano for Antonio’s trial. He is often almost indistinguishable from his companion Solanio.
A Venetian gentleman, and frequent counterpart to Salarino.
The duke of Venice
The ruler of Venice, who presides over Antonio’s trial. Although a powerful man, the duke’s state is built on respect for the law, and he is unable to help Antonio.
Launcelot’s father, also a servant in Venice.
A Jew in Venice, and one of Shylock’s friends.
A wealthy Paduan lawyer and Portia’s cousin. Doctor Bellario never appears in the play, but he gives Portia’s servant the letters of introduction needed for her to make her appearance in court.
Portia’s servant, whom she dispatches to get the appropriate materials from Doctor Bellario.