A thought-provoking look at antisemitism in Shakespeare's day, mixed with romance and comedy.
When her wealthy father dies, he leaves three caskets - one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead - that hold Portia's fate. One of them holds an image of herself and the man who chooses the right box will have her as his wife, whether she loves him or not.
Miles away in Venice, Bassanio seeks money from his merchant friend Antonio in order to travel to Belmont, where Portia lives, and win her hand. Unfortunately, the request drives Antonio to borrow money from the wealthy and unmerciful Jew Shylock, who finishes the deal with the demand that, should Antonio fail to make good the bond, he will forfeit "a pound of flesh." When all of Antonio's ships are sunk and his money lost, it looks as if Shylock will have the flesh he wants.
Antonio and Shylock despise each other for their religions (Antonio being a member of the catholic, or universal, Church and Shylock being a Jew) and neither can be called Christian in their behavior toward one another, at least at the beginning. Antonio is later merciful, even though Shylock previously showed him no mercy whatsoever. Portia, the heroine, has a sharp mind and uses it to do good, even commenting once that one good deed shines like a candle in a "naughty world."
She and her maid do at one point play a trick on their husbands, punishing them, in a sense, for breaking certain promises. The women do forgive the men, however.
Jessica, Shylock's daughter, takes money from her father before eloping; later, he expresses more anger at this than at the fact that she has left.
Shylock is a Jew and holds to the letter of the law, but, like the Pharisees of Jesus' time, misses its heart. He often speaks of the prophets of the Bible, the words of the law, and other such passages that suit his purpose. Antonio is a Christian in name, meaning that he was born into the Church the way most of the Medieval world was, but he and his friends look upon the Jews as dogs and have little mercy toward them.
Jessica converts to Christianity when she marries the man Lorenzo; later she says that she is "saved by him [Lorenzo]." Another man tells her that she is doomed to Hell because she was born a Jew, conveying the mindset that Jews cannot be redeemed.
In her speech toward Shylock, Portia speaks of the nature of mercy and rightly says it is an attribute of God Himself, and in that passage gives a very biblical view of justice tempered by mercy.
Shylock has every intention of cutting an actual pound of flesh from Antonio, hoping to kill him in the process. A few mentions of the sinking of Antonio's ships, but nothing more than that.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Surprisingly little, considering Shakespeare's style and the time period, but there is still some present. Lorenzo makes a comment about another man having gotten a girl pregnant. There are mentions of husbands and wives sleeping together, and at one point Portia and Nerissa (her maid) make their husbands believe that they have slept with other men, though in fact they have not. Someone suggests that Jessica is illegitimate. There is also an elopement, but no indecent talk surrounding it.
Crude or Profane Language or Content
There are parts where characters invoke God's name in ways that make it difficult to tell if they are misusing it or merely speaking of or to Him, and there are other places where it is clearly taking His name in vain. However, The Merchant of Venice contains less of Shakespeare's typical bawdy humor than, say, Romeo and Juliet does.
The Merchant of Venice is an interesting play, not only for its characters of Portia and Shylock, but for its look at the social structure of Shakespeare's day. It reveals the deep-seated antisemitism of the world in that age, the stereotypical way of looking at the Jewish culture, and the mutual animosity between Christians and Jews. While the attitude is not correct from a true biblical perspective, it is very accurate to the Medieval times.
The play itself is hard to assign to merely one genre; it is part romance, part historical fiction, and part comedy. The romance part does not involve the long speeches and professions of love that are in some of Shakespeare's earlier works, but it is more developed and well-rounded. The comedy, devoid of most of Shakespeare's typical bawdy humor, was in places quite witty and worth a laugh.
All in all, with an unforgettable cast of characters, an accurate (if somewhat disturbing) look at Europe's stratified society, and a theme of mercy and true justice triumphing over hate, The Merchant of Venice was thought-provoking and worth reading by a mature audience.