Act 1, scene 1 of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is set in the sixteenth-century island city-state of Venice, Italy, one of the wealthiest cities in Europe at the time.
More specifically, the first scene of the play takes place near the docks and the offices of shipping merchants—like Antonio, the “merchant” of The Merchant of Venice—which are located on and near the Adriatic Sea, from which ships sail to ports on the Mediterranean Sea, and to Asia Minor, India, Southeastern Asia, and the Far East to trade all manner of goods and wares.
The second scene of The Merchant of Venice is set in the fictional Italian city of Belmont, a wealthy city not far from Venice. The wealth of Belmont comes not from trade but from the well-to-do people who live there—including Portia, who later thwarts Shylock’s efforts to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh for failing to repay a loan.
Shakespeare took the name “Belmont” from a novella entitled Il Pecorone, which he used as one of his sources for The Merchant of Venice. In Il Pecorone, a character named Gianetto travels a great distance from Italy to meet with the “Lady of Belmont.”
It’s interesting to note that although there is no actual city of Belmont in Italy, Shakespeare nevertheless provides a precise location for the fictional Belmont, as well as directions on how to get there, and it’s not nearly as far away from Venice as Gianetto had to travel to see the Lady of Belmont in Il Pecorone.
In act 3, scene 4, Portia urges her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, to hurry to the coach that’s waiting to take them to Venice, “For we must measure twenty miles to-day,” which is to say, ten miles to Venice and ten miles for the return trip. Portia’s villa is located on the bank of a river and two miles from a monastery. There’s a famous villa ten miles from Venice called the Villa Foscari, which fits this description and existed at the time The Merchant of Venice was written.
Shakespeare also describes Portia and Nerissa’s journey from Portia’s villa to Venice as taking place in two sections—first by land in their coach, then by ferry, which is the journey overland from Villa Foscari to the ferry landing at Fusina, on the Italian coast, then by ferry to the landing in front of the Court of Justice, where Antonio is on trial.
Act 1, scene 3 is also set in Venice, in what is generally described as “A Public Place,” where business affairs are conducted and where Antonio arranges for a loan from Shylock against which Antonio pledges a bond of a pound of his “fair flesh,” if he’s unable to repay the loan.