Antonio, a prosperous merchant of Venice in the sixteenth century, is approached by his old friend Bassanio for a loan. Bassanio wishes to present himself in style and travel to Belmont, in order to woo Portia, a young and beautiful heiress. Antonio’s fortune is currently tied up in his trading ships, and he does not have the required funds in hand. However, he agrees to act as guarantor, if Bassanio can borrow the money elsewhere. Bassanio approaches Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Shylock hates Antonio, who has always treated him with contempt because he is Jewish, and because he charges interest on money that he lends. However, Shylock agrees to loan Bassanio 3000 ducats, to be repaid in three months. Pretending that it is a mere jest, he specifies that the penalty for failure to pay on time will be a pound of Antonio’s flesh, cut from his breast. Confident that his ships will return to Venice in good time so that the debt can be repaid, Antonio accepts this condition for the bond.
Shylock’s daughter Jessica elopes with Lorenzo, fleeing her father’s house with much of her father’s money, with the intention of becoming a Christian. Shylock is furious at the loss of both his daughter and his ducats.
Under the terms of her late father’s will, no suitor may marry Portia unless they choose correctly between three caskets, made respectively of gold, silver and lead. Portia complains to Nerissa, her maid and confidant, about her lack of freedom to make her own choice of husband. Unsuccessful suitors choose wrongly, and go disappointed away. Bassanio, with his young friend Gratiano, sails to Belmont, where Bassanio chooses the correct casket, to Portia’s delight. Portia and Bassanio prepare to marry, as do Nerissa and Gratiano.
News comes to Belmont that Antonio’s ships have been unexpectedly delayed; he cannot repay the loan on time, and Shylock will demand his pound of flesh at the Duke of Venice’s court. Portia and Nerissa disguise themselves as men – a learned lawyer and her clerk – and travel to Venice, where Portia uses brilliant legal argument to confound Shylock’s malicious intentions, and save Antonio’s life.
After the trial Portia and Nerissa, still disguised, will accept no payment, but each asks only for a ring which she has given her husband, who has sworn never to part with it. Bassanio and Gratiano very reluctantly give the lawyer and clerk these precious rings. Portia and Nerissa later have fun upbraiding their husbands for giving away the rings, before the deception is revealed and all ends happily.