Portia, a wealthy heiress of Belmont, sets her suitors a challenge. He who wins it will win her hand; those who lose it will lose her hand and much more. In Venice, city of consumption, speculation and debt, Bassanio borrows money from 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. If they should fail and the money cannot be paid Antonio shall give to Shylock a pound of his own flesh. And they do fail. And Shylock will have his ‘bond’.
Shakespeare dramatises the competing claims of tolerance and intolerance, religion and civil society, justice and mercy, in some of his most electrifying scenes, and in the character of Shylock created one of the most unforgettable outsiders in all theatre.