Act I, Scene One
Antonio, a merchant, is in a melancholic state of mind and unable to find a reason for his depression. His friends Salerio and Solanio attempt to cheer him up by telling him that he is only worried about his ships returning safely to port. Antonio, however, denies that he is worried about his ships and remains depressed. His two friends leave after Bassanio, Graziano and Lorenzo arrive. Graziano and Lorenzo remark that Antonio does not look well before exiting, leaving Bassanio alone with Antonio.
Bassanio informs Antonio that he has been prodigal with his money and that he currently has accumulated substantial debts. Bassanio reveals that he has come up with a plan to pay off his obligations by marrying Portia, a wealthy heiress in Belmont. However, in order to woo Portia, Bassanio needs to borrow enough money so that he can act like a true nobleman. Antonio tells him that all his money is invested in ships at sea, but offers to borrow money for him.
Act I, Scene Two
Portia, the wealthy heiress, discusses her many suitors with her noblewoman Nerissa. She points out the faults that each of them has, often stereotyping each suitor according to the country from which he has arrived. Nerissa, a gentlewoman who works for Portia, asks her if she remembers a soldier who stayed at Belmont several years before. Portia recalls the man, and says, "Yes, yes, it was Bassanio" (1.2.97). Portia's servingman then arrives with news that four of her suitors are leaving, but another, the Prince of Morocco, has arrived.
Act I, Scene Three
Bassanio in engaged in conversation with Shylock, a Jew who makes his living as a moneylender. Bassanio has asked him for a loan of three thousand ducats, a very large sum at the time, for a period of three months. He further tells Shylock that Antonio is to "be bound," meaning that Antonio will be responsible for repaying the loan.
Shylock knows Antonio's reputation well, and agrees to consider the contract. He asks Bassanio if he may speak with Antonio first, and Bassanio invites Shylock to dinner. Shylock responds that he will never eat with a Christian.
Antonio arrives at that moment and Bassanio takes him aside. Shylock addresses the audience and informs them that he despises Antonio. He bears an old grudge against Antonio which is not explained, but Shylock is further upset that Antonio lends out money without charging interest, thereby lowering the amount he is able to charge for lending out his own money. Shylock turns to Antonio and tells him why interest is allowed in the Hebrew faith by quoting a biblical passage in which Jacob receives all the striped lambs from his father-in-law. Antonio asks him if the passage was inserted into the bible to defend interest charges. He states, "Was this inserted to make interest good, / Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (1.3.90-91). Shylock replies that, "I cannot tell. I make it breed as fast" (1.3.92).
Antonio is upset that Shylock is considering charging him interest on the loan, and asks Shylock to loan the money without any interest. Shylock tells him that, "I would be friends with you, and have your love" (1.3.133). He offers to seal the bond, "in a merry sport" (1.3.141) without charging interest, but as collateral for the loan demands a pound of Antonio's flesh. Antonio thinks Shylock is only joking about the pound of flesh, and is happy to seal the contract. He remarks that, "The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind" (1.3.174).
The Merchant of Venice, like so many of Shakespeare's plays, opens with a depressed and melancholy character. The depression of Antonio at the beginning, for which he can give no explanation, is much like Antipholus of Syracuse in The Comedy of Errors. Portia, the wealthy Belmont heiress, is likewise a depressed and unhappy character in the opening scenes. The reasons for their melancholy, although never directly expressed, are due to their self-absorption. And as with Antipholus in The Comedy of Errors, it is only by taking a huge risk (or both) that they will be able to overcome their depression. For Portia, this risk taking can be seen in her love for Bassanio, which will require her to risk her entire inheritance in order for her to win him. For Antonio, the risk is even greater; namely a pound of flesh, representing his very life.
Bassanio represents the gambler who cannot lose. He is the sort of character that will risk everything, and having lost everything, will risk what he does not have. Thus Bassanio tells us, "In my schooldays, when I had lost one shaft, / I shot his fellow in the selfsame flight / The selfsame way, with more advised watch, / To find the other forth; and by adventuring both, / I oft found both" (1.1.140-144). He has often been compared to Jason in the Quest for the Golden Fleece, namely a risk-taker.
Portia as a character is an odd mixture of various traits. She is first presented as the ruler of Belmont, clearly in charge of both herself and those around her. However, we soon discover that she is not in charge, indeed it is "the will of a living daughter curbed by the will of a dead father" (1.2.21). Portia's reliance on the wishes of her dead father therefore contradicts the image of her as Belmont's ruler. Indeed, like many of the women in Shakespeare's plays, she will be unable to alter the plot around her as long as she is a woman. It is only later in the play, by dressing as Balthasar, a man, that she will finally be able to really command events and manipulate the play.
It is necessary to focus on the conflict between the Christians and the Jews throughout this play. Although the twentieth century has altered the way western civilization portrays the Jew in The Merchant of Venice, the compelling character of Shylock still disturbs and entices his audience. Shylock has historically been portrayed as a comic character, and in Shakespeare's day would have dressed quite differently from the other characters in order to distinguish himself from the Christians. The image of Shylock changed rapidly over the years, first making him a villain in the 1700s, a man to be pitied in 1814, and finally a tragic character in 1879.
Although Shylock is accused of representing much of what the Christians hate, it is through his conflict with Antonio in particular that Shakespeare pokes holes in the accusations of the Christian men. The most common error is to assume that the merchant referred to in the title is in fact Shylock himself. This is not the case, since Shylock is only a moneylender. Indeed, the merchant indicated is Antonio. This confusion surrounding Antonio and Shylock is purposeful, for it shows the audience how the Christians are in many ways as awful as the Jews they mock. It also sets the stage for misinterpretation. For example, Shylock states, "Antonio is a good man" (1.3.11), referring to the fact that Antonio is "good" for the money which Bassanio wishes to borrow. Bassanio takes this statement at face value, and agrees that Antonio is a nice man.
The seriousness of the Christian misunderstanding can be seen when Shylock makes the bond with Antonio:
"This kindness will I show.
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond, and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Now Antonio repeats the same mistake made by Bassanio, thinking that Shylock is being "kind" when he agrees to loan the money without interest. Antonio states "The Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind" (1.3.174). Antonio is so convinced that he will be able to repay his debts that Shylock's request for a pound of his flesh as collateral strikes him as a joke, and therefore is not taken at all seriously.
Shylock's willingness to waive the interest payment brings to light an entirely new set of conflicts within the play. Shakespeare draws on Francis Bacon's statement, "It is against nature, for money to beget money," when he portrays the Christians as unselfish givers of all they have. Shylock defends his taking of interest by quoting the passage where Jacob is given the striped lambs. Antonio immediately rejects this as nonsense, asking, "Was this inserted to make interest good, / Or is your gold and silver ewes and rams?" (1.3.90-91). Shylock replies that, "I cannot tell. I make it breed as fast" (1.3.92).
This scene further focuses our attention on the use of sheep imagery in connection to money and breeding. Here Shakespeare plays on the words "use", "usury", and "ewes", all of which will be punned throughout the play. All the sheep imagery is on Shylock's side throughout, for he is fleecing the Christians, breeding the ewes. He therefore mentions Jacob as his defense for taking interest, and we can note later that Shylock's wife is named Leah, the same name that Jacob's first wife had. Shylock is also able to make his money breed like sheep through the charging of interest. On the other hand, the Christians have Jason and the Golden Fleece. This image is used in connection with Bassanio, the risk-taker, who risks everything to gain everything. The same image will figure later with Antonio, who is represented as a wether, a castrated sheep. Thus the concept is reinforced that Antonio does not make his money breed because he refuses to charge interest.