In act 1, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, two Venetian merchants, Salerio and Solanio, try to comfort Antonio—the “Merchant of Venice” of the title—who is overcome with sadness for no apparent reason.
ANTONIO: In sooth, I know not why I am so sad;
… But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ‘tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn. (1.1.1–5)
Salerio and Solanio offer little solace to Antonio, but only seem to make matters worse by imagining all of the things that could go wrong with Antonio’s merchant ships at sea.
Salerio begins well enough by comparing Antonio’s mighty “argosies, with portly sail, / Like signiors and rich burghers on the flood” (1.1.9–10), with the lesser ships at sea, the “petty traffickers” (1.1.12) that pay homage to Antonio’s ships as the larger ships “fly by them with their woven wings” (1.1.13–14).
Solanio says that he would constantly be worried about every aspect of the voyage. “I should be still / Plucking the grass, to know where sits the wind” (1.1.17–18), he says, and looking at maps, searching for any fearful thing that might bring misfortune to his ships and sadden him.
Salerio envisions his own ship, the Andrew, being run aground on a sandy beach by a great wind, its masts broken, and the ribs of its hull exposed to the elements. He thinks about the ship being driven against huge rocks which would break open the ship, throwing its cargo of exotic spices into the sea, and blowing the costly fabrics in its hold into the air and across the sea, where they would spread far and wide to “enrobe the roaring waters with my silks” (1.1.35).
Antonio responds that he has many ships carrying different cargoes in many different places on the sea, so that his fortune doesn’t depend on only one ship or one voyage:
ANTONIO: Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad. (1.1.46)