How does Shakespeare introduce the characters Antonio and Bassanio in the beginning of the first act of the Merchant of Venice, and in what ways does their relationship form the basis of the entire play?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Antonio and Bassanio are kinsmen and close friends, who engage in revelry with others such as Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano. In the first scene of Act I, Bassanio asks a favor of Antonio and confides in his friend.

Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice opens with Antonio talking with two friends, Salerio and Solanio. He mentions that he is overcome with a certain melancholy for which he can find no source. The other men suggest that he is anxious about his merchant ships that are at sea; furthermore, in an effort to empathize, Solanio tells Antonio that he used to worry constantly when his ships were at sea with cargo. But, Antonio declares that it is not anxiety for his ships that disturbs him. His description of his feelings are those of melancholy; it is as though Antonio has a presentiment.

I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano--
A stage where every man must play a part,
And mine, a sad one. (1.1.76-78)

Gratiano cautions Antonio to not cultivate melancholy in order to gain a reputation for silent wisdom:

Fish not with this melancholy bait
For this fool gudgeon, this opinion. (1.1.101-102) 

Shortly after this, Bassanio enters and jests about Gratiano, declaring that he speaks "an infinite deal of nothing" (1.1.114). Antonio asks Bassanio about his secret lady for whom Bassanio "swore a secret pilgrimage." Bassanio, then, tells Antonio that he is in debt, even as he knows that he owes Antonio money still. But, he has an idea of how he can repay his debts to Antonio, who bids him to speak, 

Then do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am pressed unto it. Therefore speak. (1.1.160-163)
Bassanio then tells his friend about the lovely and wealthy Portia. But, he has learned that she has many men who would like to marry her. So, if Antonio can provide Bassanio with some money, he can compete against these rivals. Antonio tells Bassanio that he will try to get credit and help him.
 
As it turns out, the only way that Antonio can obtain money is by going to the usurer, Shylock. He borrows three thousand ducats with the condition that if the debt is not repaid, Shylock can extract a pound of flesh from Antonio, who gambles on his ships' successful return so that he can repay the loan. 

Bassanio, who is now fortified against his rivals, goes to Belmont to try to win Portia for his wife. As Bassanio tries to decide which casket to choose so that he can marry Portia, Antonio receives word that his ships have been lost. Learning of Antonio's loss, Shylock, who hates him as a rival money-lender, is eager to collect on his loan. In the meantime, Bassanio receives word of his friend's misfortune; his marriage celebration is halted; and he hurries to help Antonio because his new wife has offered to pay Shylock much more than the original debt. Secretly, Portia and her friend Jessica disguise themselves as the doctor of law, to whom the Duke of Venice has petitioned, and his clerk.

After arriving in the Duke's court, as the doctor of law, Portia reads the contract between Antonio and Shylock and finds it binding. However, there is no provision for Shylock to spill any of Antonio's blood in taking the pound of flesh. Therefore, the payment of a pound of flesh cannot be extracted, and Shylock loses his case.
 
In the end, Bassanio's tale in Act I about his shooting the second arrow and watching it carefully in order to find the first arrow proves valid as a figurative act, both for his borrowing of money from Antonio and for the rescue of Antonio from losing a pound of flesh. 
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial