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The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Act 1, Scene 3

Professor Regina Buccola of Roosevelt University provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Act 1, Scene 3 of William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice.

The Merchant of Venice | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



Bassanio negotiates with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to borrow 3,000 ducats for three months in Antonio's name. Shylock acknowledges Antonio has sufficient fortune but worries because he has heard much of Antonio's fortune is currently at sea in ships bound for Tripoli and Libya as well as for the Indies, Mexico, and England. He speculates on the hazards of weather and pirates and wonders if Antonio will be able to repay him. Bassanio invites Shylock to join him and Antonio for dinner so Shylock can speak with Antonio directly, but Shylock refuses the invitation because he follows different customs. Just then Antonio arrives, and Shylock speaks in an aside of his hatred for Antonio and how he would like to get revenge on him. However, Shylock treats Antonio with businesslike politeness until he enumerates the wrongs Antonio has done to him in the past: spitting on his clothing, calling him a dog, and criticizing his business practices in public. Antonio becomes defensive and says he is likely to do so again, but Shylock claims he wants to forgive and forget the past. He agrees to lend Antonio the money free of interest, asking Antonio to promise a pound of his own flesh to secure the bond as "a merry sport." Antonio agrees to these terms even though Bassanio protests.


Shylock's doubts about Antonio's fortunes and his hesitation to extend Antonio credit show his reluctance to help Antonio and Bassanio from the start of their negotiation. The aside in which he speaks of his hatred of Antonio and his desire for revenge on him, in contrast with his outward proclamations of friendship, or forgiving and forgetting, make Shylock appear scheming and untrustworthy. However, Shylock's description of his past interactions with Antonio, which Antonio affirms as true with his threat of continued mistreatment toward Shylock, also paint Antonio as untrustworthy where Shylock is concerned. Until Antonio actually appears in the scene, Shylock focuses only on the business at hand. He worries about Antonio's ability to repay him and expresses legitimate concerns about Antonio's business decisions. He refuses Bassanio's dinner invitation out of fidelity to his religious customs and a desire to keep the transaction professional. In Act 1, Scene 1 the audience experienced Antonio as a caring, generous friend. It is not until Antonio and Shylock meet that hostility emerges in both characters; these two men clearly bring out the worst in one another. Shylock's scheming against Antonio becomes obvious with his suggestion of the "pound of flesh" as collateral for the loan, because he presents this request as if it were a joke, calling it "a merry sport." Only Bassanio picks up on the threat this bond actually poses, as Antonio either accepts Shylock's suggestion as a joke or does not doubt at all he will be able to repay the loan. While Bassanio verbally protests Antonio's agreement to this arrangement, it is notable that he does not walk away from the proceedings and accepts the money once it has been borrowed.

This is the end of Act 1, which has set up the central conflict of the plot—the deadly agreement between Shylock and Antonio, which is motivated by Bassanio's determination to win Portia and Antonio's devotion to Bassanio. This conflict can also be seen as allegorical. An allegory is a story in which the characters stand for abstract concepts and which often imparts a moral. Here Shylock and Antonio may be seen as representing Judaism and Christianity. Thus, theirs is the conflict between the Old Testament and the New Testament approach to life. Shylock brings up this contrast in his aside to the audience when Antonio arrives in this scene. He says Antonio looks like a "fawning publican" and refers to the Jews as "our sacred nation." The allusion to a publican, or tax collector, is actually a jab at Shylock, since it likens him to the Pharisee in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18:10), in which the prideful Pharisee glories in his superiority to a humble publican. (Of course, aside from Shylock's sense of moral superiority, it's not a completely appropriate likeness since Antonio is far from humble where Jews—especially Shylock—are concerned.) While Shylock embraces Old Testament laws regarding such things as diet, women's social roles, and crime and punishment, Antonio—at least superficially—epitomizes New Testament values such as charity, turning the other cheek, and loving others as oneself. For example, his love of Bassanio as well as his interest-free loans to Bassanio and others can be viewed as the selfless love a true Christian has for his fellow man. This also explains his easy willingness to give his own flesh and blood as collateral to secure Bassanio's happiness.

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