The Merchant of Venice is a play known for its characters, for the cunning and irascible Shylock, for the mischievous, youthful lovers, and for its surprising views on Jews and culture in the Elizabethan era. When read, however, one discovers that there is much more to the play than its marketable traits. There are three pivotal plots, which intertwine in the play: the ring, the caskets, and the pound of flesh.
The ring is, perhaps, the most easily overlooked object in the play. It was given to the bachelor Shylock by Leah, Jessica's mother, and though it is only mentioned briefly its significance is great. When Shylock learns that his daughter, Jessica has stolen the ring and traded it for a monkey, he expresses poignant and eloquent grief for its loss: "I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys" (III.i.101-2). This vulnerability and humanity is startlingly uncharacteristic for the reader's view of Shylock, and we are surprised to witness him feeling human emotions aside from anger and greed.
For us to view Shylock as inhuman, we must do so in the face of this evidence that he can both love and mourn.
The contest of the caskets - gold, silver, and lead - is a representation of the culture and laws of Venice. The contest is open to all men, from all nationalities and religions, who wish to seek Portia's hand in marriage, just as the city of Venice is one of wealth, business and opportunity for all - Christian or Jew - to seek a fortune. Each of the caskets bears an inscription; the gold casket says "Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire" (II.vii.5), the silver casket says "Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves" (II.vii.7), and...