For much of the play, The Merchant of Venice appears to be vintage Shakespearean farce. A group of buffoons vie to marry the beautiful and wealthy Portia; women dress up as men and fool their betrothed; servants are willing accomplices in playful deceits. Where Merchant of Venice departs from the pattern of a typical Shakespearean farce is with the appearance of Shylock, the Jew. Shylock transforms this play from a simple comedy to a work of enormous complexity. In The Merchant of Venice, the contrast between the tragedy of Shylock and the comedy of the other characters raises many issues that are left unresolved for the thoughtful reader.
As the action begins Antonio, a wealthy merchant who deals in overseas trade, is sitting on a bench preening. The character of Antonio is clearly written as full of affection and devotion towards Bassanio. Bassanio wishes to borrow money to woo Portia, a woman of beauty and means who is constrained by her dead father's demand that she marry the man who solves the riddle and chooses the right metal casket. Antonio is having a cash flow problem, with his many ships out at sea and not yet returned, so he suggests borrowing the necessary funds from the Jew, Shylock. He agrees to post the required bond.
Enter Shylock, a comical yet sympathetic fellow, who makes clever jokes at the expense of the Christians in his presence, while conveying the pain and rage he feels as the victim of an unfriendly society. Quickly, the reader learns that he lends money because there are laws which prevent him from pursuing any other career. He resents that Antonio lends to his friends without charging interest, thus cutting into Shylock's market. When Bassanio requests a loan, Shylock clearly feels he at last has an upper hand in his dealings with Antonio. He takes full advantage of his edge, asking not for his standard fee, but rather for a pound of flesh should the debt not be repaid in three months' time. Since Antonio is sure his ships will return by then, he is not afraid to make the deal. And therein lies the fulcrum of the story. What follows for several scenes is amusing entertainment. Bassanio solves the riddle and wins Portia; Gratiano is smitten with Portia's servant, Nerissa, and woos her successfully; Shylock's daughter, Jessica, elopes from her father's house to marry the Christian Lorenzo, albeit stealing her father's money and goods for her beloved. All the necessary ingredients for a Shakespearean comedy.
But then the trial scene appears. Antonio erred in his confidence. Three months have passed and no ships have returned. In fact, he has received word they are wrecked. Shylock is owed his bond. In court, the judge concurs that there is no law that can prevent Shylock from extracting the pound of flesh...