The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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What is the importance of the opening scene in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice?

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The importance of the opening scene of The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare is that it establishes the closeness of the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. It's also important for telling us how much Bassanio yearns to have Portia's hand in marriage. These two factors, when taken together, explain why Antonio is prepared to engage in such a deadly bargain with Shylock, a bargain that threatens to cost him his life.

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As with the opening scene of every play ever written, the opening scene of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice establishes "the world of the play."

The scene introduces two of the major characters, Antonio and Bassanio. In fact, Antonio—the merchant of Venice of the title—is the first character to speak in the play. Antonio's first words, "In sooth, I know not why I am so sad" (1.1.1), tell the audience that the play will be involved with personal and local issues.

Salerio attempts to widen the scope of the play—"Your mind is tossing on the ocean" (1.1.8)—but Antonio brings the play back to the here and now.

ANTONIO. Believe me, no; I thank my fortune for it,
My ventures are not in one bottom trusted,
Nor to one place; nor is my whole estate
Upon the fortune of this present year:
Therefore my merchandise makes me not sad... (1.1.42–46)

Six characters appear in the first scene, all of whom appear to know each other quite well. It's clear that Antonio is a central character, but even so, the scene shows an interdependence between and among many of the characters that's carried throughout the play.

Interestingly, Shakespeare introduces a character named Lorenzo in this scene, but Lorenzo appears to be nothing more than a person who facilitates Bassanio's entrance into the scene. Lorenzo isn't needed in this scene, and he serves no apparent purpose.

This belies Lorenzo's future importance as a character who becomes involved in a subplot with Shylock's daughter, Jessica. Interesting, however, is the fact that Lorenzo isn't mentioned again until act 2, scene 3, and he doesn't reappear in the play until act 2, scene 4.

The opening of the first scene also imparts an underlying sense of uncertainty and foreboding. Something is bothering Antonio. It's not his ships at sea, as Salerio suggests, nor is that Antonio is in love, as Salanio believes. Whatever is bothering Antonio remains an unanswered question throughout the scene and into the rest of the play.

When everyone except Antonio and Bassanio exits the scene, Shakespeare jumps straight into the exposition of the play with a question from Antonio to Bassanio that seems to come out of nowhere.

ANTONIO. Well; tell me now, what lady is the same
To whom you swore a secret pilgrimage,
That you to-day promis'd to tell me of? (1.1.124–126).

Shakespeare might well have used these lines to open the play, but he chose instead to use the first 123 lines of the play to establish the world of the play and to set the scene for this question.

Bassanio doesn't actually answer Antonio's question for another forty lines, but Shakespeare uses these forty lines to establish that there's a very strong relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, and to lay the groundwork for the main plot: Bassanio needs money, and Antonio—who is short of cash right now—offers to borrow money on Bassanio's behalf.

Shakespeare also introduces a major subplot—the reason why Bassanio needs the money is to woo a woman for his wife—and brings another major character into the play not in person, but through Bassanio's effusive description of her.

BASSANIO. In Belmont is a lady richly left,
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia; nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia.
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth;
For the four winds blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece;
Which makes her seat of Belmont, Colchos' strand,
And many Jasons come in quest of her (1.1.166–177).

The audience is anxious to see this wondrous person, who appears about two minutes later in the next scene.

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The opening scene of The Merchant of Venice establishes the very important character dynamics that drive the action forward and determine what happens in the rest of the play. From the start, we can observe that Antonio and Bassanio have a very close relationship—such a close relationship, in fact, that Antonio is quite indulgent towards Bassanio, willing to lend him money on numerous occasions.

We also learn that Bassanio is head over heels in love with Portia, whose hand in marriage he so desperately seeks. But as Portia is a very wealthy young lady, Bassanio knows he needs to get his hands on some ready cash—and quick—if he's to woo her successfully. The sad fact is that Bassanio's no good with money and is therefore perpetually short of it. Hence his constantly getting out the begging bowl.

Both these factors—Antonio and Bassanio's close friendship, and Bassanio's love of Portia—determine to a considerable extent what happens from here on in. In particular, they explain why Antonio subsequently agrees to sign up to a very strange and potentially fatal deal with Shylock, the “merry bond” that could see him forfeiting a pound of flesh if he fails to pay back Shylock what he owes him.

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Act 1, scene 1 of this play is critical in multiple ways. It serves as a way to introduce audiences to characters, relationships, future conflicts, and financial situations.

Right from the start, audiences are introduced to Antonio. He isn't in a good mood, and audiences soon discover that is because he has a lot of his money wrapped up in a financial gamble. He's worried, and says as much:

And every object that might make me fear
Misfortune to my ventures out of doubt
Would make me sad.
These details are critical pieces of information because they alert audiences to the fact that Antonio is a "money guy." He's used to taking financial risks that could go quite badly. We need this information in order to make his future deal with Shylock more believable. We've already seen him take a risk on the ships, so taking a risk on Bassanio and Shylock is nothing new.
This scene also introduces audiences to Bassanio. We do understand that Antonio and Bassanio are good friends with each other, but I don't think that's necessarily the most critical thing that we learn about Bassanio. Act 1, scene 1 shows audiences that Bassanio is a fairly shallow individual. He's not great with money either, and that is why he's looking for another loan:
'Tis not unknown to you, Antonio,
How much I have disabled mine estate,
By something showing a more swelling port
Than my faint means would grant continuance.
Unfortunately, his plans for the money are nothing even close to honorable. He wants to use Antonio's money to woo the beautiful and rich Portia. Bassanio desires her because she's attractive and rich. Her money will get him out of financial trouble, and he'll have a trophy wife as a bonus. It's honestly amazing that Antonio has a deep enough friendship with Bassanio to go through with this loan.
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This scene establishes Antonio's friendship with Bassanio, and makes it clear that the two of them are devoted to one another; we see that the other friends surrounding Antonio are not as important to him as Bassanio is. The dialogue between them hints at deep devotion. When Bassanio describes his anxiety over his debts, Antonio offers to help him in any way he can. Bassanio also tells Antonio that he wants to woo Portia, and become one of the potential suitors who might win her hand in marriage. The two are very close friends, and there is a realization on Antonio's part that Bassanio's marriage will cause a shift in their friendship. This may be jealousy at work, if one entertains an interpretation of Antonio's devotion as being based in a latent homosexual attraction to Bassanio.

This scene also introduces the character of Portia (although she does not appear in it), and does so by making her seem mysterious and also worthy of admiration. Bassanio is smitten with her even having never met her, just by hearing stories of her beauty. But there is also a suggestion that Bassanio is interested in her partly because she has a fortune. Since money, wealth and debt are such strong themes throughout the play (it is a debt, bored on Bassanio's behalf, that puts Antonio in danger of being murdered by Shylock), the establishment of Bassanio's desire for wealth and an end to his debts is significant here.

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What is the dramatic function of the opening lines in The Merchant of Venice?

The opening lines of this play quickly establish the character of Antonio, the Merchant of the title, by explaining a sadness that he feels in himself but does not understand:

In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.

Critics have hotly debated the reasons for this melancholy. Antonio denies the reasons suggested to him by his friends, Solanio and Salerio, namely that he is worried about his latest shipping venture, and secondly that he is in love, but given our knowledge about the play we can perhaps doubt Antonio's protestations that these are not the reasons for his melancholy. Certainly in the opening scene we are introduced to the world of upper class Venetian merchants, whose wealth was made or broken on the success or otherwise of various highly risky shipping ventures, as is made clear later in the play.

Secondly, it is strongly suggested in the play that Antonio is deeply in love with Bassanio (what other motive is their for his willingness to pledge his "pound of flesh" to Shylock?). Given his love, perhaps he was aware of Bassanio's plan to court and marry Portia, and by so doing, end their intimacy.

Lastly, perhaps we can explain his melancholy by a sense of foreboding he has of the imminent disaster that is about to fall upon him during the action of the play. Whatever the reason, these lines contrast Antonio's character from the light-hearted levity of his fellow merchants, Solerio and Solanio.

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