The first play by Shakespeare I ever read....
From Wikipedia: In the 16th century, the city of Venice in Italy was one of the richest of the world. Among the wealthiest of its merchants was Antonio. Among the Christian community, he was known as a kind and generous person. Bassanio, a young Venetian, of noble rank but having squandered his estate, wishes to travel to Belmont to win the beautiful and wealthy heiress Portia. He approaches his friend Antonio, who has previously and repeatedly bailed him out, for three thousand ducats needed to subsidise his travelling expenditures as a suitor for three months. Antonio agrees, but he is cash-poor; his ships and merchandise are busy at sea. He promises to cover a bond if Bassanio can find a lender, so Bassanio turns to the Jewish moneylender Shylock and names Antonio as the loan’s guarantor.
Shylock hates Antonio because of his antisemitism, shown when he insulted and spat on Shylock for being a Jew. Additionally, Antonio undermines Shylock's moneylending business by lending money at zero interest. Shylock proposes a condition for the loan: if Antonio is unable to repay it at the specified date, he may take a pound of Antonio's flesh. Bassanio does not want Antonio to accept such a risky condition; Antonio is surprised by what he sees as the moneylender's generosity (no "usance" – interest – is asked for), and he signs the contract. With money at hand, Bassanio leaves for Belmont with his friend Gratiano, who has asked to accompany him. Gratiano is a likeable young man, but is often flippant, overly talkative, and tactless. Bassanio warns his companion to exercise self-control, and the two leave for Belmont and Portia.
Meanwhile in Belmont, Portia is awash with suitors. Her father has left a will stipulating each of her suitors must choose correctly from one of three caskets – one each of gold, silver, and lead. If he chooses the right casket, he gets Portia; if he loses, he must go away and never trouble her or any other woman again with a proposal of marriage.
The first suitor, the luxury- and money-obsessed Prince of Morocco, reasons to choose the gold casket, because lead proclaims "Choose me and risk hazard", and he has no wish to risk everything for lead, and the silver's "Choose me and get what you deserve" sounds like an invitation to be tortured, but "Choose me and get what most men desire" all but spells it out that he that chooses gold will get Portia, as what all men desire is Portia. Inside the casket are a few gold coins and a skull with a scroll containing the famous verse All that glisters is not gold / Often have you heard that told / Many a man his life hath sold / But my outside to behold / Gilded tombs do worms enfold / Had you been as wise as bold, / Young in limbs, in judgment old / Your answer had not been inscroll'd: / Fare you well; your suit is cold.
The second suitor is the conceited Prince of Aragon. He decides not to choose lead, because it is so common, and will not choose gold because he will then get what many men desire and wants to be distinguished from the barbarous multitudes. He decides to choose silver, because the silver casket proclaims "Choose Me And Get What You Deserve", which he imagines must be something great, because he egotistically imagines himself as great. Inside the casket is the picture of a court jester's head on a baton and remarks "What's here? the portrait of a blinking idiot... / Did I deserve no more than a fool's head?" The scroll reads: Some there be that shadows kiss; / Such have but a shadow's bliss: / ...Take what wife you will to bed, / I will ever be your head – meaning that he was foolish to imagine that a pompous man like him could ever be a fit husband for Portia, and that he was always a fool, he always will be a fool, and the fact that he chose the silver casket is mere proof that he is a fool.
The last suitor is Bassanio, who chooses the lead casket. As he is considering his choice of caskets, members of Portia's household sing a song which says that "fancy" (not true love) is "engend'red in the eyes, / With gazing fed." Seemingly in response to this little bit of philosophy, Bassanio remarks, "So may the outward shows be least themselves. / The world is still deceived with ornament." And at the end of the same speech, just before choosing the least valuable, and least showy metal, Bassanio says, "Thy paleness moves me more than eloquence; / And here choose I; joy be the consequence!" He has made the right choice.
At Venice, Antonio's ships are reported lost at sea. This leaves him unable to satisfy the bond (in financial language, insolvent). Shylock is even more determined to exact revenge from Christians after his daughter Jessica flees his home to convert to Christianity and elope with Lorenzo, taking a substantial amount of Shylock's wealth with her, as well as a turquoise ring which was a gift to Shylock from his late wife, Leah. Shylock has Antonio arrested and brought before court.
At Belmont, Portia and Bassanio have just been married, as have Gratiano and Portia's handmaid Nerissa. Bassanio receives a letter telling him that Antonio has been unable to return the loan taken from Shylock. Shocked, Bassanio and Gratiano leave for Venice immediately, with money from Portia, to save Antonio's life by offering the money to Shylock. Unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, Portia has sent her servant, Balthazar, to seek the counsel of Portia's cousin, Bellario, a lawyer, at Padua.
The climax of the play comes in the court of the Duke of Venice. Shylock refuses Bassanio's offer of 6,000 ducats, twice the amount of the loan. He demands his pound of flesh from Antonio. The Duke, wishing to save Antonio but unwilling to set a dangerous legal precedent of nullifying a contract, refers the case to a visitor who introduces himself as Balthazar, a young male "doctor of the law", bearing a letter of recommendation to the Duke from the learned lawyer Bellario. The "doctor" is actually Portia in disguise, and the "law clerk" who accompanies her is actually Nerissa, also in disguise. Portia, as "Balthazar", asks Shylock to show mercy in a famous speech ("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."—IV,i,185, arguing for debt relief), but Shylock refuses. Thus the court must allow Shylock to extract the pound of flesh. Shylock tells Antonio to "prepare".
At that very moment, Portia points out a flaw in the contract (see quibble): the bond only allows Shylock to remove the flesh, not the "blood", of Antonio. Thus, if Shylock were to shed any drop of Antonio's blood, his "lands and goods" would be forfeited under Venetian laws. Further damning Shylock's case, she tells him that he must cut precisely one pound of flesh, no more, no less; she advises him that "if the scale do turn /But in the estimation of a hair, /Thou diest and all thy goods are confiscate."
Defeated, Shylock concedes to accepting Bassanio's offer of money for the defaulted bond, first his offer to pay "the bond thrice," which Portia rebuffs, telling him to take his bond, and then merely the principal, which Portia also prevents him from doing on the ground that he has already refused it "in the open court." She then cites a law under which Shylock, as a Jew and therefore an "alien", having attempted to take the life of a citizen, has forfeited his property, half to the government and half to Antonio, leaving his life at the mercy of the Duke. The Duke immediately pardons Shylock's life. Antonio asks for his share "in use" (that is, reserving the principal amount while taking only the income) until Shylock's death, when the principal will be given to Lorenzo and Jessica. At Antonio's request, the Duke grants remission of the state's half of forfeiture, but in return, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and to make a will (or "deed of gift") bequeathing his entire estate to Lorenzo and Jessica (IV,i).
Bassanio does not recognise his disguised wife, but offers to give a present to the supposed lawyer. First she declines, but after he insists, Portia requests his ring and Antonio's gloves. Antonio parts with his gloves without a second thought, but Bassanio gives the ring only after much persuasion from Antonio, as earlier in the play he promised his wife never to lose, sell or give it. Nerissa, as the lawyer's clerk, also succeeds in likewise retrieving her ring from Gratiano, who does not see through her disguise.
At Belmont, Portia and Nerissa taunt and pretend to accuse their husbands before revealing they were really the lawyer and his clerk in disguise (V). After all the other characters make amends, Antonio learns from Portia that three of his ships were not stranded and have returned safely after all.