The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Salarino and Solanio, two Venetian merchants, notice their friend Antonio has been out of sorts lately. Antonio has sent several ships abroad to trade goods in many ports, so his friends speculate that he has overextended his fortunes in shaky investments. They describe how anxious they would be if they were similarly invested in the fates of so many ships, watching every blip of change in the winds and weather until their fortunes returned to port. Antonio denies such concerns and tells Salarino and Solanio that his investments are diverse enough to protect him from loss. The two men then speculate that Antonio is out of humor because he is in love, which Antonio immediately denies. Salarino and Solanio briefly attempt to raise Antonio's spirits, but they are soon interrupted by the arrival of three other friends—Bassanio, Gratiano, and Lorenzo. Salarino and Solanio take leave to attend to their own business.

Gratiano also observes Antonio's sad disposition and takes it upon himself to "play the fool" and cheer him up, and he cautions Antonio not to wallow in his melancholy. Then Gratiano and Lorenzo also depart, promising to return at dinner time. Once he and Bassanio are alone, Antonio asks about Bassanio's recent visit to an unnamed woman, which prompts Bassanio to first describe the extent of his personal debt before telling Antonio about the woman, who lives at Belmont and whom he wishes to court. Bassanio asks Antonio to lend him money so he can appear wealthy and compete with the woman's other suitors. Antonio tells Bassanio that his money is occupied in his ships at sea but gives Bassanio permission to borrow the sum elsewhere on his credit.

Analysis

Act 1, Scene 1 sets up the elements of Antonio's reality—or his perception of reality—that will become the source of all his problems in the play. The first source of Antonio's troubles is his confidence in his investments. Salarino and Solanio, as fellow merchants, have close knowledge of the dangers and risks of trade at sea, and they worry on Antonio's behalf. Shylock will echo these concerns that Antonio has overextended his resources in Act 1, Scene 3, so the risky nature of Antonio's business choices are common knowledge. Antonio maintains that he has nothing to worry about, that he has not staked all his hopes on a single venture, so even if one of the ventures fails, he will still remain solvent. Despite his diverse investments, it also becomes apparent that Antonio has no contingency plan if all his ships should meet with disaster. In the unlikely event that all his ventures fail, Antonio has no nest egg set aside. If he did have a reserve in place, it stands to reason that he could loan the money to Bassanio himself instead of sending Bassanio out to borrow the money on his credit. It is possible that Antonio does have a reserve of money that he is keeping from Bassanio, but it makes poor business sense for Antonio to allow Bassanio to take out a loan in Antonio's name—for which Antonio will owe interest—while sitting on a reserve of cash.

The permission to borrow reveals the second cause of Antonio's problems: his unflinching devotion to Bassanio. By his own admission, Bassanio owes tremendous debts all over Venice, including to Antonio. In his explanation of his decision to marry, Bassanio mentions his debts and Portia's wealth repeatedly. Bassanio may genuinely love Portia, but it is undeniable that his marriage to "a lady richly left" will improve his financial situation considerably. Antonio knows Bassanio is unreliable with money, that his success with Portia is not assured, yet he offers Bassanio everything he has, "my purse, my person, my extremest means." Whether this devotion stems from a sense of paternal or romantic affection is not clear—and has been subject to different interpretations in performances—but it is clear that Antonio's love for Bassanio has no discernible limits.

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