The Merchant of Venice is essentially a play about property: in telling the story of a merchant who treats his own flesh as property to secure a loan, and the moneylender who calls in the debt, the play asks questions about the value of life itself. Throughout the play, tangible objects such as rings and caskets stand in for intangible ideas about love and fidelity. A test where three suitors must choose between silver, lead, and gold caskets functions to remind audiences that “all that glisters isn’t gold,” and the true value of life has no financial equivalent. However, money plays a significant role for most of the characters, for whom financial security equals independence. Language about penalties, bonds, and forfeitures add to the sense of life reduced to commercial transactions. The fact that the most avaricious, greedy character in the play ends up having lost both his physical wealth as well as his daughter and his religion warn against the dangers of excessive greed. While the play culminates in a trial scene, Portia’s soliloquy suggests that mercy, or forgiveness, is ultimately more important than legal justice.
The major conflict driving the plot of The Merchant of Venice takes place between Bassanio, who wants to marry Portia to gain the financial means to pay back his debt to Antonio, and Shylock, who wants revenge on Antonio for lending money without interest and for his anti-Semitic insults. Shylock’s desire for revenge on Antonio implies a deeper desire to defend his humanity and his way of life. During the play’s inciting incident, Bassanio uses Antonio’s credit to secure a loan from Shylock, binding Antonio to Shylock and making their final confrontation inevitable. Though the men separate after this incident, the stakes of their conflict are raised during the rising action of the play. First, Lancelot and then Jessica rob and abandon Shylock in quick succession, fueling his fury. Next, Bassanio wins the chance to marry Portia in the casket game, fulfilling his superficial desires for money and marriage and bringing him close to proving his character by repaying Antonio in money, love, and loyalty. Finally, Antonio’s ships fail to return, giving Shylock has the opportunity to get his revenge and Bassanio the opportunity to prove his character by coming to Antonio’s rescue.
The conflict between Bassanio’s desire to redeem his character by proving himself a loyal friend and Shylock’s desire to defend his humanity by enacting revenge on Antonio comes to a head in the play’s climactic trial scene. Shylock makes the case for his right to collect his bond by arguing that he has the same rights as any other hateful character in Venice. But Portia, disguised as Balthazar, argues that in trying to collect on his loan, Shylock has threatened Antonio’s life, and therefore broken the law. Not only can Shylock not collect the money he loaned, he is stripped of his livelihood and religion, signaling that the world of the play will not accept Shylock’s humanity or his way of life. Bassanio, Portia, Gratiano, Nerissa, Lorenzo, and Jessica all finish the play happily married and financially secure in Belmont. While the couples in the play end up happy, Shylock’s punishment seems neither merciful nor just. Not only is he unable to collect the money he is rightfully owed by Bassanio, he loses the rest of his wealth, his daughter, and his Jewish faith. While Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have seen Shylock’s conversion to Christianity as a victory for his immortal soul, Shylock’s forced conversion is shockingly anti-Semitic and unjust to modern readers.