The Merchant of Venice scene by scene | Shakespeare Learning Zone | Shakespeare's Royal Company (2023)

scene by scene

Here's a closer look at what happens in each scene in The Merchant of Venice, to help you look at the play's structure and question it.

As you look at each act, we've included a few things to look out for. These are important character developments or key questions a group might ask when they walk through the play for the first time at the beginning of rehearsal. If you work with them as you go along, they will help you understand the piece. It's a good idea to have a copy of the text nearby!

  • act 1

    Ato 1 Dinner 1

    The play begins with Antonio, a Venetian merchant, sharing with his friends Salerio and Solanio that he feels "sad" but doesn't know why. Friends of his suggest that he is worried about his ships, that they are "sailing the ocean" and full of valuable goods, or that he is "in love". Antonio rejects both ideas and Salerio and Solanio leave when Bassanio, (Antonio's 'noble relative') arrives. Bassanio confesses to Antonio that he is broke and needs resources to go to Belmont and court Portia, an heiress. Antonio agrees to help Bassanio and promises him that he will find someone to lend him the money, which he later gives to Bassanio.

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    • There doesn't seem to be a specific cause for Antonio's sadness and its origin is a mystery.
    • Bassanio wants to woo Portia, but he has no way to go to Belmont and be considered a worthy suitor.
    • Antonio and Bassanio are very close friends and, although Antonio has no money available, he is willing to help his friend in any way he can.

    Ato 1 Dinner 2

    In Belmont, heiress Portia and her girlfriend and friend Nerissa discuss the intriguing "lottery" that Portia's father planned before his death. Portia cannot choose her own husband, and instead, any suitor wishing to marry Portia must choose one of the three coffins. One is made of lead, one of silver and one of gold. If the suitor chooses the coffin with Portia's portrait, they win her hand in marriage. Portia and Nerissa talk about the men who have recently visited Belmont on this mission and Portia deftly dismisses them as unattractive, until Nerissa reminds her of meeting "a Venetian, a scholar and a soldier", whom both ladies agree is 'more worthy of a fair lady'.

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    • Portia is a smart and resourceful woman who has her own thoughts and opinions, but is bound by her father's will.
    • So far, Portia has not liked all the suitors and they have failed the casket challenge.
    • Portia and Bassanio had met before, when their father was alive. Both Portia and Nerissa agree that he is a far more attractive man than the suitors who have visited her recently.

    Ato 1 Dinner 3

    Back in Venice, Bassanio meets Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, from whom he asks for a loan of "three thousand ducats for three months". In exchange, Antonio will be "obliged" to repay the loan. In an aside to the audience, Shylock admits that he hates Antonio for several reasons. When Antonio arrives, Shylock reminds him of how badly Antonio has treated him in the past ("you call me an unfaithful you cruel dog"), though he agrees to lend Antonio the money.

    However, if Antonio doesn't pay on the appointed day, Shylock will cut a pound of Antonio's meat. Bassanio doesn't want his friend to go along with this, though Antonio is confident his ships will return 'a month before the day' so he can pay Shylock. Antonio agrees to "seal this bond".

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    • There is a history of animosity between Antonio and Shylock.
    • Both Antonio and Shylock are prejudiced against each other due to their different religions and conflicting business interests.
    • Bassanio suspects that Antonio will accept this bail, but Antonio is very interested in helping his friend and is confident that he will be able to pay Shylock back in three months.

    Things to watch out for in Act 1

    • In Scene 1 we find Antonio and Bassanio. What indication is there that they are close friends?

    • Watch as Shylock and Antonio talk to each other. Can you identify the reasons why you don't like each other so much?

    • Prejudice and how we view other people is a major theme in the play. Consider the way Portia and Nerissa talk about suitors. What does this reveal about how they view certain men?

    • Act 1 is important because it establishes the characters and their current situations. What do you think is the most important detail that Shakespeare gives you about each character in this act of the play? What are the possible problems or dilemmas that each of them faces?

  • Act 2

    Ato 2 Dinner 1

    In Belmont, the Prince of Morocco tries to woo Portia, asking her not to ignore him because of his dark "skin". Portia reminds the prince that she cannot choose her own husband, but will be conquered by whoever manages to fulfill the task left by her father. The prince asks him to immediately take him to the coffins. Portia tells her that they will go after dinner and that before she chooses she must swear that she will never marry anyone if she chooses the wrong coffin.

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    • The Prince assumes that Portia is likely prejudiced towards him due to his dark skin.
    • Portia tactfully manages to avoid discussing her true feelings towards the suitors by reminding them that she is "surrounded" by her father's will.
    • The challenge left by the father incurs a severe penalty for those who choose wrongly.

    Ato 2 Dinner 2

    'The Clown', Lancelot Gobbo, gives a speech in which he admits that he is considering running away from his master, Shylock. He says that Shylock is a "demon" and a "kind of demon". He comes to the conclusion that he is going to 'run away', but is interrupted by the arrival of Old Man Gobbo, his blind father. Old Gobbo asks Lancelot how to get to Shylock's house. Lancelet pranks his father by pretending to be someone else, giving Gobbo the wrong addresses and pretending that Lancelet is dead. When he finally reveals who he is to his father, Gobbo shares his decision to leave Shylock.

    Bassanio then enters and Lancelot asks if he can serve him. Bassanio had already agreed to this, but confirms it and also agrees to let his friend Gratiano come to Belmont on the condition that he curbs his generally wild and rude behavior.

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    • There are other characters in the play who are prejudiced against Shylock.
    • Bassanio doesn't mind putting Shylock's manservant at his service.
    • Though we don't yet know his motives, Gratiano wants to come to Belmont so badly that he's willing to be discreet and modest.

    Ato 2 Dinner 3

    Shylock's daughter Jessica says goodbye to Lancelet, whom she is very sorry to see go. She asks him to deliver a letter to Lorenzo, who knows he will be having dinner at Bassanio's later, and gives him some money. Lancelet bids her farewell with tears. Jessica then admits that she is "ashamed" to be her father's daughter and that she hopes her beloved Lorenzo will fulfill his promise to marry her so that she can become a "Christian" and his "loving wife".

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    • Jessica and Lancelet have a close relationship, despite his hatred of her father, Shylock.
    • Jessica doesn't like her father.
    • Jessica has been secretly courting a Christian, Lorenzo.

    Ato 2 Dinner 4

    Lorenzo and his friends (Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano) discuss their plan to disguise themselves as masked men and help Jessica escape Shylock's house. Lancelet hands Jessica's letter to Lorenzo, who gives Lancelet money and asks him to tell Jessica he "will not fail her". Lorenzo shares with Gratiano the contents of Jessica's letter, in which she says that she will be dressed as a page and has money and jewelry that she will bring with her.

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    • Lorenzo has recruited a group of friends to help him and Jessica run away.
    • Unlike Portia, who plays by her father's rules, Jessica is prepared to break convention and run away.
    • Jessica has an elaborate plan, which involves dressing up as a boy and taking her father's money and jewelry.

    Ato 2 Dinner 5

    Shylock instructs Lancelot to use his eyes to "judge" the difference between himself and Bassanio before calling Jessica. He informs her that he is going out to dinner, gives her the keys to the house, and tells her to 'look into [her] house' and 'lock [her] doors'. Shylock is aware that a mask is happening that night, but there is also some "illness" brewing when he dreamed "of bags of money tonight", which he considers a bad omen.

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    • Shylock is unsure about the safety of his home and belongings.
    • He believes that dreams can have symbolic meaning.
    • At this point in the play, Shylock trusts Jessica and is unaware of her plans to run away.

    Ato 2 Dinner 6

    Gratiano and Salerio arrive at Shylock's house, following Lorenzo's instructions. They worry that he will be late, as they feel that lovers are often particularly punctual, as they are eager to "seal the bonds of love". When Lorenzo finally arrives, he calls Jessica, who appears disguised as a boy. She is embarrassed by the clothes, but Lorenzo assures her that it doesn't matter and that she needs to come right away. She throws a chest full of money, before going to get more ducats and then leaving with Lorenzo and Salerio. Antonio arrives and finds Gratiano. Antonio tells Gratiano that he must sail to Belmont with Bassanio tonight, as "the wind has come".

    More information

    (Video) Act 3 Scene 1 | The Merchant of Venice | 2015 | Royal Shakespeare Company

    • Jessica is not afraid to steal money from her father.
    • She worries about Lorenzo's reaction to her outward appearance in the suit.
    • Antonio is eager to help Gratiano get to Belmont with Bassanio.

    Ato 2 Dinner 7

    At Belmont Portia shows the three chests to the Prince of Morocco. You must choose between the gold one (which bears the inscription 'Whoever chooses me will have what many want'), the silver one (with the inscription 'Whoever chooses me will receive what he deserves') or the lead one ('Whoever chooses me get what you deserve'). chooses me must give and risk all he has'). He deliberates and then chooses gold. Upon opening the coffin, the prince discovers a skull and a scroll with the warning "all that glitters is not gold". He is so "distressed" that he leaves immediately.

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    • Although he asked Portia not to make judgments based on external appearance, the Prince judges that the gold casket is correct because it is outwardly more attractive than the lead one.
    • The gold chest is not what contains Portia's portrait, so it must be silver or lead.

    Ato 2 Dinner 8

    Salerio tells Solanio that Bassanio and Gratiano have left on a ship and that he is sure Lorenzo is not on it. Solanio describes how Shylock and the Duke of Venice went to search Bassanio's ship, but they were too late. He also starkly relates Shylock's response to the discovery of Jessica's escape, who is said to have cried out "My daughter! Oh, my ducats! Oh, my daughter!", Solanio expresses her hope that Antonio will return the money to Shylock in time. , as he fears he "must pay" if not. Salerio's concern arises with the news that a ship that possibly contained some of Antonio's possessions has been lost at sea.

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    • Shylock was extremely distraught when he discovered that Jessica and her money were missing and alerted the Duke of Venice to help him look for her.
    • From Salanio's report of Shylock's response, it appears that Shylock was as upset over the loss of his money as he was over the loss of his son.
    • There is a possibility that one of Antonio's ships perished at sea.

    Ato 2 Dinner 9

    The Prince of Aragon is in Belmont to try to win Portia's hand in marriage. She shows him the three coffins and reminds him of the terms of the challenge. The prince considers the options and chooses the silver one. Upon opening the coffin, he discovers "the portrait of a jerk flashing" and quickly takes his leave.

    A messenger arrives and tells Portia that "a young Venetian" is at the door and brings "gifts of great value". Portia and Nerissa are curious to see who it is and Nerissa hopes it's Bassanio.

    More information

    • Portia's portrait isn't in the silver casket, which means it must be in the lead one.
    • If the visitor really is Bassanio, then he has spent some of Shylock's money (through Antonio) on gifts for Portia.
    • Portia is intrigued by the Messenger's description of the man who was sent before the next suitor.

    Things to watch out for in Act 2

    • The Prince of Morocco thinks Portia will be prejudiced against him because of the color of his skin. Is there any evidence to suggest this is the case?

    • Lancelot is another character that Shylock doesn't like very much. What kind of image of Shylock does his boss' description create?

    • We meet Jessica, Shylock's daughter. From what Jessica and Shylock say about each other and the way they interact, what do you learn about the nature of their relationship?

    • Act 2 is important because it increases our understanding of the characters and their relationships. The people of Venice are closely connected in many ways. How are they linked? Are all relationships positive?

    (Video) Act 4 Scene 1 | The Merchant of Venice | 2015 | Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Act 3

    Ato 3 Dinner 1

    Solanio and Salerio discuss the news that another of Antonio's ships has been lost. Shylock arrives and accuses them of being complicit in Jessica's escape. They insult him and ask him if he heard the news of Antonio's 'loss at sea'. Shylock only cares that Antonio "takes care of his bond". Salerio doubts that Shylock will take Antonio's meat and asks what it would be 'good' for.

    Shylock responds with 'to attract fish' and once again explains how badly Antonio has treated him in the past, prompting him to ask 'what's his motive?' and points out that although he is of a different religion than Antonio, he too has 'hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions' and is as human as he is Christian; “If we are bitten, do we not bleed?” Then one of Antonio's messengers arrives to call Solanio and Salerio. Shylock and Tubal talk about the ring that Jessica now has, which belonged to her late mother. Shylock tells Tubal how precious he is to him.

    More information

    • Antonio's chance of being able to pay Shylock back in time has been reduced now that more of his ships have been lost.
    • Shylock explicitly reveals that he wants to "get revenge" on Antonio for how he was treated in the past.
    • Shylock strongly believes that Jews and Christians are essentially equal human beings.
    (Video) [BBC] The Merchant of Venice (2015) | Original Play | Royal Shakespeare Company | 1080p Blu-ray

    Ato 3 Dinner 2

    Back in Belmont, Bassanio is about to choose one of the coffins, but Portia asks him to "pause a day or two" so as not to "lose [his] company" if he chooses wrong. She admits that she could teach him how to choose the right casket, but is reluctant to do so because then she would be a "renegade". Bassanio is desperate to make his choice immediately, as the current state of uncertainty is as excruciating as being "on the shelf". Portia asks music to be played while Bassanio makes his decision. Bassanio deliberates, then opts for the lead coffin, in which he discovers Portia's portrait. Both Portia and Bassanio are pleased that he made the right choice. Portia kisses him and gives him a ring which, if he loses it, "will herald the doom of [her] love". Gratiano then asks Bassanio if he can get married, as he has fallen in love with Nerissa. Bassânio accepts the match.

    Then Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio arrive and deliver a letter to Bassanio. In the letter, Bassanio learns that all of 'Antonio's ventures have gone bankrupt' and explains to Portia that he has no wealth of his own, but borrowed money from Antonio, his 'dearest friend'. Salerio and Jessica explain that Shylock is now determined to "eat Antonio's flesh". Portia offers to pay Shylock double what Antonio owed him, and after listening to Antonio's letter, urges Bassanio to fast travel to his friend.

    More information

    • At the start of the scene, Portia is evidently torn between wanting Bassanio to choose the correct casket and not violating the terms of her father's will by telling him which one to choose.
    • This is the first suitor she really wants to marry.
    • Bassanio 'bonds' with Portia through her upcoming marriage, but also because she gives him a symbolic ring.
    • All of Antonio's ships have been lost, so he cannot pay Shylock back.
    • Portia is willing to do whatever she can to help Antonio, as he is a very close friend of Bassanio.

    Ato 3 Dinner 3

    Antonio is arrested and Shylock obsessively repeats that he will get his bail. Solanio doubts that the Duke will let Shylock claim the pound of flesh, but Antonio is adamant that "the Duke cannot deny the course of the law". He says goodbye to Solanio and prays that Bassanio will come visit him.

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    • Shylock seems more determined than ever to get his bail.
    • It would be 'illegal' for the Duke to arrest Shylock.
    • Antonio pondered the consequences of the agreement, but hopes to see Bassânio once more.

    Ato 3 Dinner 4

    Lorenzo tells Portia that Antonio is a "true gentleman" and that if she knew him, she would be even more proud of her willingness to help him. Portia responds that since Antonio and Bassanio are so close, in her eyes she is saving Bassanio if she saves Antonio. She then announces that she has decided to retire to a monastery 'to live in prayer and contemplation' with Nerissa until her two husbands return. She says that Lorenzo and Jessica can take her and Lord Bassanio's place at Belmont while she is away.

    After Lorenzo and Jessica leave, Portia instructs Balthasar to deliver a letter to his cousin Doctor Bellario in Mantua and to bring him the "notes and clothes" that Bellario gives him. Balthasar leaves with the letter and Portia reveals to Nerissa that they are going to disguise themselves as men and go to Venice.

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    • Lorenzo feels enormous admiration for Antonio.
    • Portia seems willing to help Bassanio's friends, whether she knows them or not. Her reasons for this are open to interpretation.
    • Portia has hatched a plan, which involves some secrets and disguises!

    Ato 3 Dinner 5

    Lancelet taunts Jessica, saying he is afraid that she has inherited her father's sins and that she is "cursed". He expresses his hope that she is not, in fact, Shylock's daughter, but Jessica points out that this would make her a "bastard" and she could then inherit her mother's sins, making her "cursed of both father and mother." ". . Jessica notes that she believes her husband will "save" her, as she has now become a Christian, like him.

    Lorenzo arrives and interrupts the conversation, announcing that Lancelot has impregnated a woman before instructing him to cook dinner. Lorenzo asks Jessica what she thinks of Portia and she expresses her admiration for Portia.

    More information

    • Lancelot seems to have a lot of affection for Jessica, despite his dislike of her father.
    • Lancelet is having an affair with someone he is not married to.
    • Both Lorenzo and Jessica agree that they are very fond of Portia.

    Things to watch out for in Act 3

    • Watch as Shakespeare begins to break the news of Antony's missing ships. Why is it important? How does this create tension and suspense?

    • Watch as Shylock's determination to have his "bond" intensifies. How does that influence your opinion of Shylock? What else do we learn about his motivation? How does Jessica's escape affect you?

    • See how Portia talks to Bassanio before he chooses the coffin. How can you know she likes that? Is there a point where you think Bassanio might not pick the right casket? Why do you think Portia asks for music?

    • The third act is important because it builds tension and drama. What do you think are the most dramatic moments of this act and why? Why do you think Shakespeare includes coffins and how do Portia and Bassanio differ in their approach?

  • Act 4

    Ato 4 Dinner 1

    In a courtroom in Venice, the Duke laments that Antonio has "come to answer" a "miserable inhuman", but Antonio says he understands that "no legal means" will help him escape. Bassanio offers to pay Shylock double what he loaned Antonio, but Shylock refuses, stating that he only wants justice.

    The Duke announces that he has sent for 'Bellario, a wise physician', to judge the case. Nerissa, disguised as a lawyer's clerk, arrives and delivers a letter to the Duke. The letter says that Bellario is too ill to come, but that he will send a "young doctor from Rome" named Balthasar to oversee the trial. Portia then arrives, disguised as Balthasar. She gives a speech about how mercy cannot be forced before stating that "there is no power in Venice" that can nullify Shylock's bond and Shylock is delighted. However, Portia then points out that there is no mention of blood in the bond and that if Shylock causes Antonio to lose even "a drop of Christian blood", his "land and property" will be confiscated by the state of Venice. . . . Shylock realizes that it will be impossible to eat the meat without blood and offers to "let the Christian go" if he is given money instead. Portia rejects the deal and declares that Shylock can have her bond or nothing else.

    Shylock realizes that he has been defeated and wants to leave, but Portia won't let him go. She announces that 'in the laws of Venice' if anyforeignerit is proven that he tried to kill one of his citizens, so his assets will be seized and half will be handed over to the victim and the other half will go to 'the state's private coffer'. In addition, the Duke will decide whether the offender will live or die. The Duke of Venice declares that he will let Shylock live, but that half of his fortune must be given to Antonio and the other half will go to the state. Antonio says that if Shylock converts to Christianity and leaves his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo when he dies, he can keep his half. Shylock agrees and leaves.

    The Duke invites 'Balthasar' to dine with him, but Portia refuses. The Duke tells Antonio that he must reward 'Balthasar', but Portia refuses all the money, asking for Bassanio's ring as a reward. Bassanio does not recognize Portia and refuses to give it to her, telling 'Balthasar' that it was a gift he promised never to 'sell, nor give, nor lose'. Antonio then convinces Bassanio to give the ring to 'Balthasar'.

    More information

    • The Duke is on Antony's side and doesn't like Shylock.
    • Under the guise of a lawyer, Portia demonstrates her intelligence and understanding of Venetian law.
    • Bassanio and Gratiano do not recognize their wives.
    • Bassanio initially does not break his promise to Portia and gives her the ring, but Antonio convinces him to do so.

    Ato 4 Dinner 2

    Still dressed in her attire, Portia asks Nerissa to hand over the legal documents to Shylock. Gratiano catches up with Portia and gives her Bassanio's ring (thinking it is 'Balthasar' the lawyer). Nerissa then tells Portia that she will see if she can persuade Gratiano to give her her ring, despite her making him swear that she would keep it when she initially gave it to him.

    More information

    • Portia's ring has now been returned to her, while she was dressed as 'Balthasar'.
    • Nerissa wants to see if her husband goes back on his promises, as Bassanio did.

    Things to watch out for in Act 4

    • Several characters ask Shylock to show Antonio mercy. Look who's trying to talk him out of bail. What arguments do they use? Who do you find most convincing?

    • See how power and status change in the scene. Who has more power in the beginning and why? Is this the same in the end or has it changed?

    • This scene is full of twists and turns. Can you follow Shylock's up and down journey? Where do you think you are most likely to get the meat? What happens when Balthasar intervenes?

    • Watch as Portia and Nerissa test Bassanio and Gratiano by asking for their rings. Why do you think they do this?

    • Act 4 is important when we reach the dramatic climax of the plot. Shylock and Antonio come face to face in the courtroom and Shylock is ready to cut the merchant's meat. In the end, Antonio is saved and Shylock is punished. Do you think Shylock's punishment is fair?

    (Video) Act 1 Scene 3 | The Merchant of Venice | 2015 | Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Act 5

    Ato 5 Dinner 1

    Lorenzo and Jessica are in Belmont. they talk about celebritiesclassical music loverswhile looking up at the moonlit sky. They then discover that Portia and Bassanio are back, separately. Portia and Nerissa arrive first and instruct Lorenzo to tell everyone they never left Belmont. Then Bassanio and Gratiano arrive, along with Antonio and others. Portia welcomes her husband home and Bassanio introduces her to Antonio. Nerissa and Gratiano immediately get into an argument over the ring Nerissa gave Gratiano that she realized he no longer had.

    Gratiano then reveals that Bassanio also gave away his ring and Portia declares that she will not share Bassanio's bed until she sees the ring again. Bassanio tries to make Portia understand why he gave in, but she keeps berating him for being unfaithful. Antonio tries to intervene to get Portia to sympathize with Bassanio. He then gives her 'another' ring, which she tells her to take care of 'better than the other one'. Bassanio realizes that it is the same ring he gave her. Nerissa then pulls out her ring before Portia confesses that "Portia was the doctor" and Nerissa was the secretary. He also hands Antonio a letter saying that three of his ships have arrived safely in port. Nerissa breaks the news that Jessica and Lorenzo will receive Shylock's fortune when he dies. Portia and Nerissa seem to forgive their husbands, and the play ends with Antonio alive and rich once more.

    More information

    • Bassanio and Gratiano had no idea that their wives were the undercover lawyers.
    • Although Portia and Nerissa are angry at Bassanio and Gratiano for giving away their rings, they seem willing to forgive them.
    • Antonio, the Merchant who gives the work its title, is a solitary figure at the end and doubts arise about the success of the relationships between the three couples.

    Things to watch out for in Act 5

    • See how Lorenzo and Jessica talk at the beginning of the act. What is the meaning of the allusions they make? Where do these references come from?

      (Video) Act 3 Scene 2 | 'I pray you' | The Merchant of Venice | 2018 | Royal Shakespeare Company

    • Note that Lorenzo immediately recognizes Portia's voice when he returns to Belmont. What do you think of the fact that Bassanio and Gratiano did not recognize their wives at court? How do they react when they find out it was the lawyer and the notary?

    • Act 5 is important because it ties up all the loose threads and resolves the plot. The play seems to have a positive ending for the three couples (Portia and Bassanio; Nerissa and Gratiano; Lorenzo and Jessica), but will it be a completely happy ending for everyone? What hints are there that these relationships and other characters in the play might not succeed in the future?


1. Act 3 Scene 2 | The Merchant of Venice | 2015 | Royal Shakespeare Company
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