The Merchant of Venice

Plot Summary

Antonio, the merchant of Venice, lends three thousand ducats to his friend Bassanio in order to assist him in his wooing of the wealthy and beautiful Portia of Belmont, an estate some distance from Venice. But Antonio's own money is tied up in business ventures that depend on the safe return of his ships from sea, so he borrows the money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender whom he has previously insulted for his high rates of interest. Shylock lends the money against a bond whereby failure to repay the loan on the agreed date will entitle Shylock to a pound of Antonio's flesh. Portia's father has decreed that she will marry whichever suitor makes the correct choice when presented with three caskets, made of gold, silver and lead. Where wealthy suitors from Morocco and Aragon fail, Bassanio succeeds by choosing lead. His friend Gratiano marries Portia's lady-in-waiting Nerissa at the same time. News arrives that Antonio's ships have been lost; he is unable to pay his debt. Shylock's claim to his pound of flesh is heard in the law court before the duke. Unknown to their husbands, Portia disguises herself as a young male lawyer acting on behalf of Antonio, Nerissa as a clerk. Portia's ingenious defence is that Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh but not to spill any of Antonio's blood; she argues that the Jew should forfeit his life for having conspired against the life of a Venetian. The duke pardons Shylock on condition that he gives half his wealth to Antonio and half to the state. Antonio surrenders his claim on condition that Shylock converts to Christianity and leaves his property to his daughter Jessica, whom he has disinherited for running away with her Christian lover Lorenzo. Portia and Nerissa then assert their power over Bassanio and Gratiano by means of a trick involving rings that the men have promised never to part with. Finally there is good news about Antonio's ships.

Relationship to De Vere

During his Italian travels, de Vere went into debt to borrowing from local loan merchants. He knew from his travels that a dish of baked doves was an honoured northern Italian gift.

De Vere's long-time secretary Arthur Munday wrote Zelauto in 1580 - a Homeric novel of worldly adventure. Munday had just returned from his own continental travels, and dedicated the publication to de Vere. The plot for Merchant of Venice contains a variation on the plot line from Munday's work.

De Vere's mother was Margery. From de Vere's history, she made not have played a major role in his life. As a young child, he is likely to have lived with tutors, and after the passing of his father, he resided in the Cecil household. When de Vere resided in the Cecil household, Margery wrote polite greetings to her son in letters to William Cecil. While de Vere used family names frequently in plays, there is only one reference to his mother. In this play, Launcelot declares to Old Gobbo that he (Launcelot) is his son. Margery is Old Gobbo's wife.

In his Italian travels, de Vere met Discalzio, who was the inspiration for the character Bellario in the play. Bellario was the University of Padua law professor asked to settle the case of Shylock versus Antonio.

In the play, Portia lives on the river Brenta in an estate called Belmont, located ten miles from Venice and 2 miles from the monastery. Only one villa meets these descriptors - Villa Foscari. Guglielmo Gonzaga - duke of Mantua - had visited the villa. In the play, Portia's assistant Nerissa recalls a recent visit to Belmont by the Marquis de Montferrat, also known at Guglielmo Gonzaga - duke of Mantua. De Vere probably stayed with the duke in Mantua, during his Italian travels.

Portia is probably modeled on Elizabeth Trentham, de Vere's second wife (married 1591). Bassanio courts Portia, at least in part to get out of debt.

BASSANIO: Gentle lady,
When I did first impart my love to you,
I freely told you all the wealth I had
Ran in my veins - I was a gentleman -
And then I told you true; and yet, dear lady,
Rating myself at nothing, you shall see
How much I was a braggart. When I told you
My state was nothing, I should then have told you
That I was worse than nothing.

In the play, Antonio has taken a loan from Shylock in anticipation of money from overseas. The money fails to come, and Antonio defaults on his debt, and Antonio and Shylock go to a Venetian court. In the trial scene, legal terminology is plentiful. The case loosely parallels a case involving de Vere and Thomas Gurlyn. In this case, Gurlyn claimed de Vere owed him money stemming from events twelve years before (1585). Without satisfaction over this period, Gurlyn sued de Vere's wife Elizabeth Trentham, because she controlled the household money. Ultimately, Elizabeth Trentham won.

At the time, there were two potential justice systems through which the matter could be resolved: common law (which took the law literally) and the chancery (equity) courts. The conflicting justice systems (strict constructions of established law versus fairness and equity) was the leading legal question of the day. In the play, de Vere holds that equity should prevail over a strict interpretation of the law. According to Portia:

PORTIA: The quality of mercy is not strained;
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.
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronéd monarch better than his crown ...
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seems justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice by thy plea, consider this,
That in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

Portia's pleadings borrow from Ecclesiasticus 28:1 - 3, a key pre-Christian teach. In de Vere's bible, de Vere noted this section particularly, and posed hand written notes addressing the questions of mercy and forgiveness.

In 1578, de Vere invested £3,000 in the Cathay Company under Michael Lok in a venture led by Martin Frobisher to find a waterway to the Pacific through the northwest passage under Frobisher. The venture was a failure. In the play, the generous Antonia takes out a 3,000 ducat bond with the financier Shylock - a name based on Michael Lok.