The Merchant of Venice Critical Commentary
by William Shakespeare

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Act I Commentary

Scene i: Scene 1 introduces one of the major plot points of the play as well as several of the key characters. When Antonio, Salerio, and Solanio enter at the beginning of the scene, they are in the midst of a discussion about why Antonio is depressed. This "sadness," which Antonio claims to not know the source of, becomes clear when he reveals to Bassanio that all of his fortunes are tied up to his ships out at sea. It should also be noted that Antonio lies to Salerio and Solanio, who both assume that Antonio is worried about his trade until Antonio reassures them that "My ventures are not in one bottom trusted//Nor to one place...Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad" (ll. 42-45). Antonio is well aware that the practice of placing all of one's fortunes on sea trade is treacherous, and because of this is unwilling to admit his situation to anyone but Bassanio.

Antonio's willingness to admit his troubles to Bassanio also indicates the closeness of their relationship. Antonio not only confides in Bassanio, but he often reciprocates by helping Bassanio with his problems, especially the financial ones:

"To you, Antonio,
I owe the most in money and in love,
And from your love I have a warranty
To unburden all my plots and purposes
How to get clear of all the debts I owe" (ll. 130-134).

Bassanio, then, has depended on Antonio several times before for both financial and emotional support. It is because of this history that the main plot of the play is set into motion. Bassanio comes to Antonio in this scene in order to borrow more money so that he can pursue Portia. Unfortunately, Antonio has no money to give him, but tells Bassanio to borrow upon Antonio's credit to get the sum that he needs. This is the first example of Antonio's willingness to sacrifice himself for Bassanio, and it is what leads Antonio into the bond that jeopardizes his life.

Scene ii: There are some key comparisons between characters that are made in this scene. Like Antonio in scene 1, Portia begins the scene by discussing her "sadness," which is attributed to her marital situation. Another parallel between the two characters is that, like Antonio, Portia cannot take action—she must accept the suitor who chooses the right box, much like Antonio can do nothing but wait until his ships return. Portia also shows a preference for Bassanio, whom she has seen once before. However, unlike Antonio, Portia displays a good deal of wit in this scene in order to alleviate her sadness, and while she is distressed at the situation, she also takes the opportunity to ridicule her suitors. Her insults show her great intelligence, a trait that will become critical in Act IV, scene 1, and her playfulness, which also appears later on in the play. Also, Portia's desire to act, which is in direct contrast to Antonio's sad resignation to his situation, gives her the impetus to solve the problem of the bond.

Another character parallel that occurs in this scene is that of Nerissa and Gratiano. In scene 1, Gratiano gives a great deal of advice to Antonio to cheer him up, and Nerissa does the same in order to comfort her mistress. Nerissa's advice, much like Gratiano's, do not necessarily make much sense, and we begin to see by the end of the scene why it is that these two characters will become engaged by the end of Act II.

Scene iii: Shylock, the antagonist of the play, makes his first appearance in this scene. Bassanio, in an effort to secure the 3,000 ducats he needs in order to woo Portia, resorts to borrowing from Shylock. The Christian community of Venice hates Shylock because he is a Jew and because he charges interest when he lends money. Antonio in particular demonstrates a great deal of contempt for Shylock in this scene, despite the fact that Bassanio is attempting to convince Shylock to lend him money. When Shylock reminds Antonio that Antonio has insulted him frequently in the Rialto, often calling him a dog, Antonio replies:

"I am as like to call thee so again,
To spit on thee again, to...

(The entire section is 4,374 words.)