Portia, a wealthy heiress of Belmont, sets her suitors a challenge. The winner will win her hand in marriage, the losers will lose her hand and much more. In Venice, the epicenter of consumption, speculation, and debt, Bassanio borrows money from his friend Antonio to finance his attempt. Antonio, in turn, takes out a loan from the moneylender Shylock. The loan will be repaid when Antonio's ships return to the city. But if they should fail and the money cannot be repaid, Antonio shall give to Shylock a pound of his own flesh. And they do fail. And Shylock will have his "bond."
In some of the most highly charged scenes William Shakespeare ever wrote, The Merchant of Venice dramatizes competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religious law and civil society, justice and mercy--while in the character of Shylock, the Bard created one of the most memorable outsiders in all of theater.