The Merchant of Venice consists of three intertwined plots—what some have labeled the “casket plot,” the “bond plot,” and the “ring plot.”
The first has to do with Portia of Belmont, a “lady richly left.” By her dead father’s will, suitors who come to Belmont must choose from three caskets, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead. If they choose the one that contains her portrait, they win Portia. “I am locked in one of them,” Portia says, and the winning suitor will set her free, raise her from her casket into a new life.
Bassanio wants to court Portia but is too cash-poor to outfit a proper retinue. He asks for a loan from his friend Antonio, who in turn arranges a loan from the Jewish moneylender Shylock. They agree on a “bond” in which a pound of Antonio’s flesh, nearest the heart, serves as security against default. Thus the casket plot opens into the bond plot.
Bassanio resolves the casket plot by correctly choosing the lead casket. In the quasi-marriage that follows, Portia gives him a ring that he promises never to remove. Almost immediately, the bond plot is complicated by news that Antonio’s ships have sunk. He cannot repay his loan, and Shylock, out of hatred for Antonio and revenge against Christian Venice for the defection of his daughter Jessica, demands his pound of flesh and takes his case before the Duke of Venice.
In court, Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, traps Shylock in his legalism and uses the threat of law to force him to withdraw his suit and convert to Christianity. The bond plot is resolved, but the ring plot is complicated when Bassanio pays the lawyer (Portia) with his ring. The ring plot comes to a conclusion when Portia reveals that she was the lawyer who saved Antonio and returns the ring to Bassanio.
The play begins and ends in the romantic world of magical, musical, moonlit Belmont, and in between descends into the gritty business of Venice. From the start, though, romantic and commercial concerns are linked. Bassanio wants to court Portia in part because her wealth will help him pay off his creditors. The intertwined plots reiterate this linkage on a macro scale. In Merchant, commercial and romantic interests are interlocked and operate by the same principles.
Each of the three caskets bears an inscription. The gold promises “what many men desire” and the silver offers the chooser “as much as he deserves.” The lead casket threatens: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” Each casket represents a different outlook on love: love as desire, love as desert, and love as gift and hazard. Choosing the lead casket, Bassanio shows he understands that love is not merely securing one’s desire and certainly not a reward for merit. Love is not taking but giving; love risks; love ventures all. Portia knows this as well as Bassanio. In giving her ring, she surrenders her house, servants, her virginity, and herself to her new lord.
The inscriptions also lay out competing views of commerce. “Golden” commerce is pursued for ornamentation, out of consumerist desire for more. Often, commerce is thought of in “silver” terms: Wealth comes to those who merit it. The play doesn’t endorse that view. Instead, as Barbara Lewalski points out, commerce is, like love, a venture, risk, and hazard.
Antonio is the model merchant in this regard. Instead of hoarding, Antonio puts his talents out in the wide world, risks loss in order to gain profit, casts his bread on the waters in hope of a return. He gives a loan to Bassanio out of love, even when his own funds are tied up. Antonio risks and ventures all he has—his credit, nearly his life—for his friend, fulfilling the evangelical demand of the lead casket.
Shylock, by contrast, is all thrift, savings, and hoarding. He puts out his money only when it is secured against loss, and appeals to the state when he is at risk. He despises Antonio’s practice of lending money without interest, just as he despises Christian festivities. Antonio takes the loss of his ships with Stoic calm; loss is part of the game of commerce. Shylock stalks the streets crying, “My daughter! My ducats!” when his daughter Jessica plunders his house and leaves for the promised land of Belmont.
The Merchant of Venice rejects any confinement of gift, mercy, and love in a private sphere of romance. Love and commerce both depend on risk; both are ventures. Law, Portia says in the play’s most famous speech, is humane only when “mercy seasons justice.” We may add that commerce is human only when seasoned by the love that gives and hazards all.
Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?