The Merchant of Venice, a 16th century play penned by William Shakespeare, opens with Antonio, a Venetian merchant, sunk in gloom. When he finds himself unable to trace the roots of his seemingly endless melancholy, his friends attribute it to his ships at sea. Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano arrive shortly after. Bassanio, who is in pursuit of a wealthy heiress from Belmont named Portia, asks Antonio for a loan in order to court her. By virtue of all his investments going toward cargo, Antonio is incapable of lending the money himself, but persuades Bassanio to secure a loan in his name from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender who detests Antonio in every respect (especially on grounds of religious affiliations). Shylock agrees to provide an interest-free loan of three thousand ducats on the condition that if the loan wasn’t repayed in the stipulated time of three months, he would be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio agrees to his bizzare as well as legally-binding term. It is important to note here that Shylock not only despised Antonio for his antisemitic outlook but also because he did not concur with his business practices, i.e., charging exorbitant rates of interest on loans.
In Act I, we’re also introduced to Portia, who is in conversation with Nerissa, her maid, about her potential suitors, most of who have already been disqualified on account of her deceased father’s will which states that she may only marry the man who chooses the correct one out of three caskets made from gold, silver and lead. Still in the running are two princes from Morocco and Aragon, who later meet the same fate as their precedents.
Mayhem breaks out in the Shylock household when his daughter, Jessica, elopes with a Christian man named Lorenzo, who also happens to be Antonio’s friend. On top of it, Jessica takes her father’s valuable possessions with her. Launcelot, Shylock’s servant, also leaves his former master to serve Bassanio.
Bassanio sets sail for Belmont with Gratiano. In Belmont, Bassanio chooses the right casket and wins Portia’s hand. As a symbol of love, Portia gives Bassanio a ring making him promise to never part with it. Meanwhile, Gratiano asks Nerissa to be his wife. Soon, word arrives that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and that he is now financially ruined. Shylock also gets Antonio arrested and intends to stick to his earlier terms.
Upon hearing the same, Bassanio and Gratiano immediately return to Venice in order to save their friend in peril. Portia and Nerissa made up their mind to follow them too.
Back in Venice, the scene shifts to the city court. Antonio’s trial is in order with the Duke overseeing the case. Portia and Nerissa, who are in a lawyer’s disguise, eventually save the day. Portia, disguised as a young lawyer named ‘Balthasar’, finds a loophole in the agreement and states that although the pact entitled him to a pound of flesh, it did not mention blood, without which it stands void. For scheming against a Venetian citizen, the court also orders that half his estate be handed over to the court, and the other half to Antonio. Antonio refuses his share of Shylock’s estate and asks for it to be put in a trust for Jessica and Lorenzo. In addition to that, he demands that Shylock convert into a Christian.
The play ends with the characters rejoicing in Belmont. A plot-thickening revelation comes to the fore towards the end that Antonio’s ships have safely arrived in port.
Upon examining the play closely, one would notice that most of the characters are directly or indirectly linked to Antonio. Though it is difficult to imagine a character who harbors anti-Jew sentiments as the protagonist, his notability throughout the course of the play cannot be ruled out. The rest of the characters almost serve as expedients toward Antonio’s cause. If it weren’t for Shylock’s abnormal clause, the plot would have remained stagnant. One might argue that Antonio’s inherent prejudice in the form of anti-semitism voids the possibility of him being a protagonist, but I like to think that it sheds light on the nuances of human bearing. It is revelant to the setting in which the play is based, and it does a praiseworthy job at illuminating the then-society’s vices.
Even though some critics have argued that Bassanio is the protagonist, I am convinced that the title of the play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ alludes to Antonio holding the designation. Others have hinted at Portia being the protagonist in wake of the play’s feminist undertones and her equally resounding presence throughout the play, and though it is more in keeping with the present socio-political framework, it still seems a prospect far too ideal to envisage in the 16th century. In my opinion, it is Antonio’s cargo ships which set the rest of the events in motion. As a character, he is part of a larger cause, one whose life is at stake and is ultimately freed from the shackles of death. In a certain sense, the play follows the story of a merchant who, even though is arguably not the finest at his profession (as demonstrated by his interest-free loaning), is a sincere breadwinner and an even more sincere friend – one who was willing to trade his flesh in the occurrence of a defaulted loan thereby redefining the parameters of friendship, love and humanity.