The Merchant of Venice Act I, Scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act I, Scenes 1-3: Summary and Analysis

Act I, Scene 1
New Characters:
Antonio: a merchant of Venice

Salerio and Solanio: friends to Bassanio and Antonio

Bassanio: a young gentleman of Venice, friend of Antonio

Lorenzo: friend of Bassanio and Antonio, loves Jessica

Gratiano: friend of Bassanio and Antonio

In Venice, Antonio is depressed, though he is uncertain why. Salerio and Solanio try to account for his sadness by suggesting he is worried about his merchant ships sailing in dangerous waters. Antonio denies this, but can suggest nothing in its place. Salerio and Solanio leave as Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano enter. Gratiano and Lorenzo jest with Antonio, lifting his spirits slightly, before departing.

Left alone, Bassanio apologizes to Antonio for owing him a great deal of money. Antonio tells him not to worry about it. Bassanio then informs Antonio of a wealthy heiress in Belmont whom he wishes to court. The trouble is, he needs to borrow more money from Antonio to outfit himself properly, in order to compete with the many wealthier suitors. Bassanio suggests that, with a little more money, he will improve his chances of repaying his debt to his friend. Marrying the heiress will solve all of Bassanio’s financial problems. Antonio readily agrees to this plan; however, as all of his capital is tied up at the moment with his ships, he will be unable to lend money directly. Bassanio instead can use Antonio’s name to obtain credit.

This scene is primarily exposition, conversation made to fill the audience in on the various circumstances leading up to the events of the play. The audience learns about Antonio’s generosity and successful business standing, Bassanio’s present financial embarrassments, and the prospect of Portia’s wealth as the solution to the latter’s problems. Crucial financial information about Antonio—which will account for his future predicament—is revealed. His ships are out to sea, tying up his available assets, and this will lead him to seek a loan from Shylock. The news that his ships have been wrecked will make Antonio unable to repay the money.

Act I, Scene 2
New Characters:
Portia: the wealthy heiress of Belmont

Nerissa: her waiting woman

In Belmont, Portia confides to Nerissa her distaste for the provisions of her father’s will. Portia’s father devised a test for anyone seeking her hand in marriage. A would-be suitor must choose among three caskets (ornamental boxes)—one gold, one silver, one lead—one of which contains permission to marry Portia. The suitor must agree, however, that if he makes a wrong choice, he will spend the rest of his days single. This situation is aggravated by Portia’s complete distaste for any of her potential husbands. Nerissa names them all, while Portia enumerates her particular dislikes of each. She takes heart in the news that each has announced he will return home, fearing the strict consequences of her father’s test. The two women suddenly remember Bassanio, whom they find more appealing; however, they are interrupted in their praise by a messenger who declares that her suitors seek an audience with her, and that a new contestant, the Prince of Morocco, will arrive soon.

This short scene primarily serves as the audience’s introduction to the plot of the three caskets, which determines who may marry Portia. The test of the caskets will be performed three times in the play, by Morocco in Act II, Scene 8, Aragon in Act II, Scene 9, and Bassanio in Act III, Scene 2. The audience learns here of Portia’s inclination toward Bassanio. Her resentment of her father’s will is also significant; Portia is too independent to be told what to do, as becomes clear when, later in the play, she takes matters into her own hands to resolve Antonio’s plight. Apart from these important introductions, the substance of the scene is largely comic, a series of jokes based on various prevailing national and ethnic stereotypes as Portia disdains each suitor in turn. As is the case with much of...

(The entire section is 1,733 words.)