The play opens in 16th century Venice where we find that Portia, a rich lady of Belmont has been left to her fathers dying wish, that she must marry the man who chooses correctly from three caskets, the one containing her portrait. Bassanio, young, reckless and heavily in debt due to his lifestyle is set upon marrying Portia. However the clause in entering this lucky dip for her heart is that her suitors must pay three thousand ducats to enter. Bassanio asks his friend Antonio for a loan, he is a wealthy sea merchant but all his money is locked up in merchandise at sea. Thus the pair visit Jewish money lender Shylock. Shylock is a man forced to live in the ghettos, a lifetime of persecution perhaps explain his conduct. As much as Antonio is a figure of honour and generosity, Shylock becomes a figure of resentent and their opposition surpasses this when we discover that Antonio has been making interest free loans hence damaging Shylocks business. Shylock sees his chance for revenge and agrees to make the loan, interest free but suggests a bond in which Antonio must forfeit a pound of flesh if it is not repaid within three months. Antonio is confident that the repayment will be made and despite Bassanios concerns agrees to the terms.
Bassanio travels to Belmont with his friend Gratiano and chooses from the right casket. Both he and Portia are overjoyed and as Gratiano falls in love with Portias maid, Nerissa the picture is completed. The men are given a ring each that they must keep safe until they return for their double wedding.
Meanwhile Shylocks hatred is sealed when he learns that his daughter has eloped with Lorenzo, a Christian and friend of Antonio’s, stealing as much from her father as they could before fleeing. Shylocks only comfort comes when he hears that Antonio’s ships have been wrecked and therefore the bond has been forfeited. Shylock rejects all offers of settlement, demanding his pound of flesh and the case goes to court. Portia disguises herself as a doctor of law and examines the contract. She states that Shylock may take his pound of flesh from Antonio but may not draw blood as this is not part of the agreement. Shylock knows that this is an impossibility and leaves the court a broken man. The only payment that Portia asks for her services is that of the rings that Bassanio and Gratiano are carrying, which they reluctantly give.
When he two men return to Belmont Portia playfully asks for the return of her ring and when Bassanio attempts to explain his loss she produces it from her pocket revealing her masquerade. The foursome reunite and we learn that Antonio’s ships have returned safely. The group rejoice in their fortune.