Last Updated on December 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775
Bassanio enters with Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. Bassanio has asked for three thousand ducats and promised that should Bassanio default, Antonio will pay Shylock back. Shylock is hesitant, because he knows Antonio’s assets are overseas at the moment and that bad weather or pirates could ruin Antonio’s fortunes. Still, Shylock recognizes that Antonio is wealthy, and after Bassanio assures Shylock that Antonio can guarantee the loan, Shylock asks to speak to Antonio in person. Bassanio suggests that they dine together, but Shylock says that he will only do business with them—not dine with them—as a result of personal differences.
Antonio enters, and Shylock, in an aside, comments on how he hates Antonio for being a Christian, for giving interest-free loans, and for bad-mouthing Shylock to others. He swears that he cannot forgive Antonio. He then greets Antonio, and they go over the terms of the loan: three thousand ducats for three months. Shylock then acknowledges that Antonio never lends or takes loans with interest, and they briefly argue over the ethics of interest.
Shylock defends himself by telling the Biblical story of Jacob and Laban. Laban owned a farm and worked Jacob like a slave, but he eventually agreed to pay Jacob by letting Jacob keep all of the spotted lambs born one year. Jacob dotted the landscape with speckled reeds while the sheep were breeding, and as a result, all of the lambs born were spotted. Thus, Shylock argues, Jacob was able to charge interest for the work he did on Laban’s farm by making it so that he would inherit all of the lambs. Antonio is skeptical that this counts as a story about interest and further argues that the lamb’s birth was God’s doing, not Jacob’s. Shylock responds that one way or the other, his money breeds fast like Laban’s sheep.
Antonio finds it disgusting that Shylock would quote Biblical scripture to justify his usury, but Shylock turns the conversation back to business, and he considers lending them three thousand ducats over the course of three months. Before agreeing, he notes that Antonio has insulted him, kicked him, and spat on him for being a Jew and for charging interest. In light of this, he wonders why he should help them at all.
Antonio acknowledges that they are enemies, but he believes that their mutual enmity should make it all the easier for Shylock to charge them interest. Shylock, however, says that he would like to be friends with them and offers the loan with no interest. Antonio is surprised by this, and Shylock suggests they go to a notary to sign a contract. However, Shylock, “in merry sport,” suggests that they add a clause to the contract stating that if Antonio does not pay the loan back on a given day at a given time, Shylock will be allowed to take a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body.
Bassanio protests, but Antonio says that within two months, he should see triple the amount of money returning from his overseas investments. Shylock insists that it will be a silly joke to have such an addendum in the contract, and after all, human flesh is worth nearly nothing, so it would not benefit him to come for such a payment. Shylock leaves to get the money, and although Bassanio is suspicious of Shylock, they leave to meet Shylock at the notary’s office.
In this scene, one of the major themes of the play becomes apparent: the problem of interpretation. Shylock attempts to justify his usury using a Biblical story, but both he and Antonio have different interpretations of the story. For Shylock, the story of Laban’s sheep proves that individuals have the agency to determine what they are owed, and clever men like Jacob can devise ways to make sure they receive what they believe to be just payment. Antonio, on the other hand, sees this as proof that only God can determine a man’s worth, and it is God that will mete out justice. This division between man’s agency and God’s will appears again, most notably in act 4.
In any case, each has a different interpretation of what the biblical story is supposed to teach. It may be that this problem of interpretation is why Antonio agrees to such a contract. Shylock does not make his motives entirely clear, suggesting that adding a pound of flesh to the contract is a joke after telling Antonio that he wants to be friends. Here, Antonio’s inability to understand Shylock’s intention sets him up for trouble.
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