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The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary

The Masterpiece Theatre production of The Merchant of Venice, adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn with Chris Hunt, was originally staged as an award-winning play for England's Royal National Theatre in 1999. The film was produced by Richard Price and Chris Hunt. Although retaining Shakespeare's language, the play has been moved to a setting that evokes pre-World War II Europe. You may want to download and distribute the plot summary of the play before students view the Masterpiece Theatre production.

As the play opens, we meet Antonio, a Venetian merchant. Antonio agrees to give his best friend Bassanio the money he needs to travel to Belmont, where Bassanio hopes to woo and marry the clever and beautiful Portia. Antonio has no cash, so he goes to Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Antonio accepts a bargain from Shylock in exchange for the money: Shylock will charge no interest, but if he is not paid back on time, Antonio will forfeit, literally, "a pound of flesh."

In Belmont, Portia meets a series of suitors. Her father's will stipulates that she must marry any man who chooses correctly from among three "caskets" (gold, silver, and lead cases), finding the one containing her portrait. The Prince of Morocco and the Prince of Aragon both fail. Bassanio wisely chooses the lead casket. But just as the couple are united, news arrives that Antonio's ships have been lost at sea; he will not be able to repay Shylock on time. Meanwhile, Shylock, devastated and angry that his daughter Jessica has run off to marry Lorenzo, a Christian friend of Antonio and Bassanio, demands his due: a pound of Antonio's flesh. Portia offers to repay the loan three times over but is refused. Portia and her maid Nerissa devise a plan to help save Antonio and travel to Venice disguised as men.

Shylock's case against Antonio is brought to trial, presided over by the Duke of Venice. The Duke and Bassanio urge Shylock to accept repayment of the loan and release Antonio from the grim penalty. Shylock refuses, demanding "justice." A young legal expert, Balthazar (Portia in disguise), arrives with his "clerk" (Nerissa) to help settle the matter. She confirms that Shylock is entitled to "a pound of flesh," but pleads with Shylock to place "mercy" above "justice" and spare Antonio. When he still refuses, Portia reminds Shylock that, according to the law, if he sheds any of Antonio's blood while taking his flesh he will be arrested. Shylock relents and agrees to accept repayment of the loan, but Portia now argues that he should not only be denied his money but that he face a penalty of death for plotting to take the life of a Christian. Sparing Shylock's life, the court takes half his wealth and requires him to convert to Christianity.

Portia, still disguised, demands that Bassanio thank her by giving her his ring, a gift from Portia that he had promised never to remove. Bassanio hands over the ring. His friend Gratiano gives up Nerissa's ring. Back in Belmont, Portia and Nerissa accuse their men of having given their rings to other women. Portia finally reveals the truth. She and Bassanio are reunited just as news arrives that Antonio's ships have been saved.


Before Viewing
  • The Merchant of Venice turns on themes that students will find familiar, despite the troubling aspects of the plot; both the anti-Semitism directed at Shylock and Portia's marriage predicament (she is forced to submit to the lottery set up by her father) deserve careful discussion. As a pre-viewing activity, list the play's themes on the board, including: money and status; revenge; justice and mercy; prejudice and tolerance; loyalty; love/tests of love.

  • Brainstorm with students: how and where do these themes present themselves in our lives? Have students read or seen other works (literature, films, television) that touch on any of the themes of The Merchant of Venice? Assign students to select one theme and track its development as they watch the film, taking notes on particular scenes that present the theme and characters who wrestle with that issue.

  • The following list of main characters also includes the lines that they are famous for. You may want to write these on the board and ask students to choose one or two to watch for as they view the film. Afterwards, ask students why they think these lines have become so well-known and whether they accurately reflect the character who speaks them.

    Antonio, a merchant of Venice
    "I hold the world but as the world...
    A stage where every man must play a part,
    And mine a sad one." [I, i, 81-83]


    Bassanio, a Venetian gentlemen, suitor to Portia
    "So may the outward shows be least themselves;
    The world is still deceived with ornament."
    [III, ii, 75-76]


    Portia, an heiress of Belmont
    "The quality of mercy is not strained.
    It droppeth from heaven
    Upon the place beneath."
    [IV, i, 190-193]


    Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Venice
    "I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions?"
    [III, i, 57-58]


    Jessica, his daughter
    "But love is blind, and lovers cannot see
    The pretty follies that themselves commit... "
    [II, vi, 37-38]


Teacher's Guide:
Teaching The Merchant of Venice and Othello
The Merchant of Venice: Plot Summary | Before Viewing
Othello: Plot Summary | Adapting Shakespeare
Adapting Shakespeare: Activities | On Race and Religion
On Race and Religion: Activities | The Filmmaker's Vision
Resources | Order the Teacher's Guide



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