The Merchant of Venice opens with three characters: Antonio, Salarino, and Solanio. Antonio explains that he feels sad, but he does not know why. Salarino and Solanio suggest that it is probably because Antonio has several trading ships at sea. They tell him not to worry because his ships are sturdy. Salarino notes that if he himself were a businessman with so much money invested in some ships’ cargo, he would constantly be afraid of the ships wrecking.
Antonio tells them that it is not his business that he is sad about, so Solanio suggests that he must be in love, but Antonio dismisses this idea. Solanio then suggests that it might simply be Antono’s disposition. Salarino and Solanio decide to leave as Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano enter, thinking that this trio will be better company for Antonio. Lorenzo and Gratiano claim that they will leave Bassanio and Antonio to talk alone, and Lorenzo reminds Bassanio that they all have dinner plans later in the evening.
Before they leave, Gratiano notes that Antonio does not look well, and Antonio responds that the world is a stage and that “every man must play a part . . . mine a sad one.” In response, Gratiano volunteers to play a mirthful fool and claims that there are many silent, stoic men who take themselves too seriously; but were these men to speak, they would mark themselves as foolish. Gratiano says that they will speak more after dinner, and Lorenzo complains that he never gets a chance to speak when Gratiano is around.
Lorenzo and Gratiano exit, leaving Bassanio and Antonio. Bassanio states that while Gratiano loves to talk, he rarely has a point to make; Bassanio points to the former dialogue as an example. Antonio changes the subject and asks about a secret girlfriend whom Bassanio was going to visit in Belmont, but Bassanio has many debts to pay off before he can make such a trip. Bassanio, aware of the fact that he is already in debt to Antonio, explains that he needs to borrow more money from Antonio. He promises to be careful with Antonio’s money, but Antonio, who sees them as close friends, does not need such assurance and is willing to give Bassanio any money he might ask for.
Bassanio then explains that there is a girl in Belmont named Portia who is very rich. He has fallen for her, and he believes she has fallen for him, but many rich suitors are trying to court her. He believes that if he had money to rival these suitors, he could win her. Antonio tells Bassanio that currently all of his money is at sea, but he gives Bassanio permission to take out a loan in his name and promises to help Bassanio get to Belmont.
Act 1, Scene 2 opens in Belmont, with Portia and Nerissa speaking. Portia feels tired by the world, and Nerissa suggests this is because she owns too much; it is better, she says, to live comfortably than to have too much in the world. Portia agrees but complains that it is difficult to follow this advice. In fact, she argues, good advice is much easier to give than it is to follow. Portia then complains that her melancholy is a result of her inability to choose a husband for herself due to an edict from her deceased father. Nerissa explains that her father had good intentions on his deathbed, creating a kind of game wherein her suitor must choose from three chests: one each of gold, silver, and lead....
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The man to become her husband must choose the correct chest.
Nerissa then asks if Portia likes any of her current suitors. There is a prince from Naples, whom Portia dislikes because he only talks about his horse; the Count Palatine, whom Portia dislikes because he never smiles; and a French lord, Monsieur le Bon, but Portia does not like him because “he is every man in no man”—that is, he was so eager to impress Portia that he had no personality of his own. Nerissa asks about an English Baron, but Portia does not speak much English, and they cannot communicate well. Portia dismisses a Scottish noble for being too weak and a German noble for being a drunk and vile, bestial man. Nerissa asks what Portia will do if the German chooses the right chest, and Portia tells her to put a glass of wine on the wrong chest, because he will be tempted to choose that one.
Nerissa tells her that most of these suitors are planning to go home as a result of her father’s test, and Portia commends their good sense. Nerissa then asks if Portia remembers Bassanio, and both comment on what a good suitor he would be for Portia. A servant enters to tell Portia that four of the suitors are leaving, but a fifth, the Prince of Morocco, is on his way. Portia hopes that she can welcome him openly but shows some concern over the fact that he is likely black. Portia, Nerissa, and the servant leave.
The introduction of this play provides an exposition on the characters and also sets the tone of the play. While this play is a comedy, designed to raise spirits, it opens with two melancholy figures, Antonio and Portia. While the audience is never given a definitive reason for Antonio’s sadness, Portia’s is related to her inability to marry a man of her choosing. Though their sadness may stem from different places, a general air of melancholy marks the beginning scenes. As this play falls into the genre of a comedy, there is an implicit promise to the audience that things will improve. In this way, there is a kind of promise to the audience that they, too, will be happier once the play is over.
While the first two acts provide context for the subject matter of the play—for instance, we learn of Antonio’s mercantile endeavors, of his giving nature, of Bassanio’s secret love, and of Portia’s situation—the play also alludes to how it will be affecting those watching it. Some other Shakespeare plays begin with an introduction wherein the audience is explicitly told what will happen and how they should feel over the course of the play. While this play does not have such an introduction, the characters themselves offer an equivalent introduction through their dialogue.
The play itself is self-aware in the sense that the characters refer to their being characters in a play, even if such references are metaphorical. This is made apparent by the fact that Antonio refers to himself as such, and Gratiano responds by playing the part of the fool.