The Merchant of Venice – Act I – Explanation

The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare

Explanation – Act I

Act 1, Scene 1

Antonio, a wealthy merchant of Venice, made his riches through marine trade. On one occasion, he stands with his two friends, Salarino and Solanio. Antonio feels gloomy and somewhat dejected. He does not know why. This intrigues him and his two friends.
Salanrino suggests that his merchant friend could possibly be worried about his ships that have not returned from the sea well after the scheduled time. To calm his nerves, Salarino says some comforting words. He says that the large ships are not vulnerable to dangers, and must be safely sailing back home. They are too big to be sunk or damaged by storms of the sea. The flotilla of the giant ships tower over the smaller cargo boats around them, and would complete their voyage smoothly.

Solanio empathizes with Antonio likewise, but has more plausible views. He says Antonio’s anxiety is understandable. He says any merchant facing similar uncertainties would brood endlessly, trying to figure out the direction of the wind with a blade of grass, and delving into the marine maps to guess how the vessels could be, and the ports and waterways en route. Solanio says it is but natural that the non-return of the ships has made Antonio’s mind listless.

Salarino became serious. Leaving his carefree attitude, he begins to make sense of Antonio tormented mind. He narrates how while blowing his cup of hot soup, the scenes of an imaginary raging storm had gripped his mind. He also says how the heap of sand at the bottom of his hour glass brought him scenes of his own wrecked ships lying in ruins in the sea beach. Even the stone building of the church sank his heart in fear as it brought him memories of treacherous rocks that imperil floating crafts.

A ship wreck instantly reduces its owner to penury. The precious cargo like spices, and silk are devoured by the tall angry waves, giving no chance of salvage. The loss devastates the owner of the ship. He now understands why Antonio is so pensive and perplexed.

Antonio begs to differ. He says the risk of the vessels does not worry him as he has other assets to preempt a sudden descent to bankruptcy.

Salarino butts in with his theory. He says his friend, Antonio, is sad because he craves for love. Antonio promptly rebuts Salarino’s contention, and pleads to be left alone.

Salarino can’t remain mum. He urges Antonio to cheer up so as to dispel the gloom from his mind. He asks Antonio to revel and make merry.

Perhaps, to vent his disappointment with Antanio’s continuing sulkiness, Salarino remarked that some people are innately jovial where as a few others (alluding to Antonio) are, by nature, grumpy.

Three of Antonio’s other friends, Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratanio arrive in the scene.  Solanio hails the trio in and leaves. Salarino stays back to take part in the discussion.

Salarino prepares to leave, but is held back. Antanio is ready to let him leave to attend to his business.

Bassanio is in upbeat mood. He asks both Salarino and Solanio to fix a time, so that they all can have some good time.

Salarino offers to join the party.

Lorenzo invites all for dinner that night, and starts to leave.

Gratiano too finds Antonio unusually reserved and de-spirited. He advises Antonio to take things easy and pull himself up. Antonio’s reticence confounds him. He pleads with Antonio not to let his brooding tell upon his health and wellbeing.

Antonio becomes philosophical. He says that perhaps, melancholy is written into his role in this world, where he, like others, plays an assigned role.

Gratiano erupts into a bout of boisterous boast. He says, given a choice, he would indulge in anything joyful, and splurge in wines willfully imperiling his liver, rather than burn away like a lamp in a dark remote corner. He beseeches his dear friend Antonio to reclaim his jovial airs, and not waste away like a lifeless statue. ‘A sullen, dry demeanour does no good’, pleads Gratiano. His love and concern for Antonio are apparent from the way he begs him to come out of the morass. Gratiano chides his friend Antonio saying that he should be like a normal human being, and not think that all the world’s wisdom is with him. There are some people like this, who foolishly expect everyone including a dog nearby to listen to their wise words with attention and reverence. Gratiano rubs in his point saying that these tight-lipped persons are, in fact, ignorant. If ever, they speak, their shallow words attract derision and mocking. With such stern words, Gratiano vents his frustration with Antonio. Before leaving with Lorenzo, Gratiano makes a final appeal to his dear friend Antonio to cast aside his gloom and regain his jest for a cheerful life.

Lorenzo leaves too, promising to be there for the dinner. Light-heartedly, he adds that he would choose to be silent like the ‘wise men’ of Gratiano’s description. He jokes that in earlier occasions Gratiano had seldom allowed him to talk as he wished.

Gratiano was ready with his riposte. He said that if Lorenzo lives with him for two years, he would lose his power of speech.

Antonio bids his friends goodbye assuring them that he would be more forthcoming from then on.

Gratiano and Lorenzo exit.

Antonio is plunged in self doubt. He asks Bassanio, if Gratiano is right in his contention.

Bassanio is going through a bad patch financially, chiefly because he spends more than he earns. Yet his dire financial straits do not affect his exterior. Bassanio wants Antonio to emulate him by being happy even in difficult times. Bassanio concedes that he does not disown his debts, but wants to redeem them and restore his standing in society. Bassanio reiterates his desire to liquidate the loan he has taken from Antonio. He hints that he has some plan to carry out.

Antonio, as always, lends a sympathetic ear to Bassanio’s desires. He says that he will assist in carrying it to fruition anyhow.  In his good-natured way, Antonio demands to know what help Bassanio wants.

Bassanio speaks about the beautiful wealthy lady of Belmont he is enamoured of. She has got huge property as inheritance, and has captivated him with her looks and grace. She is Portia. Bassanio has met her before and assumes that she loves him too. Portia is a paragon of beauty. No wonder, she has no dearth of suitors from far and wide. To match these wealthy men, Bassanio has to flaunt his wealth, but he has little to show.

Antonio rues the fact that all his wealth is tied up in his ships that are not yet ashore. Nevertheless, he offers to use his creditworthiness to avail loan for Bassanio’s needs.

Act 1, Scene 2

Portia, the most cherished woman from Belmont, feels bored and insipid. She confides to her maid Nerissa about it.

Nerissa has little to offer to lift her mistress’s spirits. Rather vaguely, she tells Portia that people with too little or too much wealth suffer too. She advises a middle path. In practice, the advice means nothing.

Portia complements her rather casually.

Portia wryly says that it is not easy to do good deeds as people flounder while attempting it. She candidly says that it’s easier to pontificate about righteous living to twenty people, than to be the one among the twenty, who practices what one preaches.  The mind must listen to the conscience. Hot-headedness makes doing good things difficult. She says she is tired of seeking out her husband. She doesn’t how to choose the right man. She laments that she can’t choose whom she likes, or refuse others. Bound by her father’s wishes, she expresses how her freedom in the matter has been curtailed. Nerissa listens.

Quite a few royal suitors have descended on Belmont to see if they could win Portia’s hand. She is confused and a bit wary. Nerissa breaks a secret about Portia’s father’s intentions. While in his death bed, he had seen a vision about the choosing of a husband for his daughter.

He had desired that there would be three boxes – of gold, silver and lead. The would-be husband should choose the right box that holds the message of Portia’s choice.

After divulging this, Nerissa wants to know if any of the princely figures indeed measured up to Portia’s expectations.

Portia asks Nerissa to go through the list of suitors. She would then narrate her impression about each of them. From this, Nerissa could surmise who meets Portia’s approval.

Nerissa takes the name of the prince from Naples.

Portia ridicules him saying that this man is a horse enthusiast. He boasts about his ability to nail a horse single-handedly. Portia discards the case calling the prince a ‘blacksmith’.

Nerissa then goes to Count Palatine.

Portia sees him as a self-centered, ego-filled man. He is so dour that even a funny story can not make him smile. So humourless young man would become a moron in old age, fears Portia. Portia turns down the case outright.

Nerissa then proceeds to the French lord, Monsieur le Bon.

Portia is no kinder to him than she was to others. She disapproves of his infatuation of his own horse, and thinks the man is self-cantered and disgustingly pretentious in nature. His flamboyance is repelling. With a chuckle, Portia says that marrying the French is equal to marrying 20 persons as he shows off the skills of almost 20 others. Portia pours scorn on him and draws the curtain on his bid to win her hands.

Nerissa then proceeds to Falconbridge, that young English baron.

Portia reacts nonchalantly, showing no excitement. The Baron does not speak Latin and Portia does not speak English. This means a huge lifelong language barrier between the two. So, the proposal is still-born. This apart, the Baron’s sartorial taste was not to her liking. He wore an Italian tie, German hat and French trousers! 

Nerissa then broached the case of the Frenchman’s neighbor, the Scottish lord.

Portia assumes that he is very forgiving in nature, since he didn’t recoil when the Englishman slapped him on the ear. Rather than defending himself aggressively on the spot, he just walked away giving a threat that he intended to avenge the insult later. Quite interestingly, the Frenchman promised to help the Scot pay the Englishman back, and added a slap of his own. It was a double whammy that sealed the Scot’s fate.

Nerissa then turns to the young German, the duke of Saxony’s nephew.

Portia is dismissive of him from the start. He is an alcoholic, who can be likened to an animal. She would be happier as his widow than as his wife, said Portia disparagingly.

Nerissa reminds Portia about her father’s desire to marry the man who won the box riddle. She can’t possibly disregard her father’s desires.

Portia is circumspect. She asks Nerissa to put a nice big glass of white wine on the wrong box. It could lure him to choose the wrong one.   Portia averred that she would never marry a drunk saying, “I’ll do anything except marrying a drunk, Nerissa.”

Nerissa firmly brought the curtain down on all these contestants. She knew that they all would confine her to the home, and rob her of her freedom. She began to think of ways to pre-empt the possibility of any of the unworthy persons from winning the box contest.

Portia bemoans her fate saying she would die an old maid unless she can be won according to the rules set by her father’s will. She feels relieved thinking these suitors are sensible enough to stay away. She wants to see their back.

Nerissa asks Portia if she remembered a Venetian scholar-cum- soldier who accompanied the marquess of Montferrat there once when her father was still alive.

Portia promptly recalled that it was Bassanio.

Nerissa spoke flatteringly about him.

Portia seems to adore him too.

At this point, a servant makes his appearance. Portia eagerly asks him if she has brought any news.

The servant announces the arrival of the four suitors. They have come to say goodbye. But, there is one more man. He is the messenger of the prince of Morocco – the fifth suitor. The prince was to arrive the same night.

Portia is not the least amused. In fact, she feels he is un-welcome. Mockingly, she says that if he’s as good as a saint but is black like a devil. She’d rather want him to hear her confession than marry her. Portia lets the servant leave and hastens to go and see off the messenger.

Act 1, Scene 3

Bassanio has reached Shylock’s house to negotiate the loan of 3000 ducats that he needs for his rendezvous with Portia.

Shylock asks some searching questions, and behaves in a rather reticent manner to convey that he is no great hurry to advance the loan. His body language shows it.

Bassanio proposes to take the loan for three months with Antonio as the underwriter.

Shylock engages in some frivolous self-talk, perhaps cooking up some nasty thoughts in his mind to push Antonio to a corner. He does not deny that Antonio is an affluent man, but, typical of a stern lender, casts doubt on Antonio’s assets (cargo-laden ships) still not in hand. It is amazing how he has managed to keep track of Antonio’s ships in far-off seas of England, Mexico, the Indies, and Tripoli. Perhaps to undermine Antonio’s creditwothiness, he says that ships are tangible assets that can vanish quickly if things go awry. “There are many imponderables in the high seas that make marine trade fraught and risky,” mentions Shylock.

Feigning some reluctance, Shylock offers to give 3000 ducats as loan under Antonio’s guarantee.

Shylock still holds back, saying he has to have iron-clad guarantee built into the loan paper. For this, he desires to speak to Antonio.

Antonio enters the scene. Bassanio respectfully announces his coming.

Bassanio suggests that the trio has dinner together to thrash out the terms.

Shylock, most impolitely, utters hurtful words aimed at Antonio. His pent-up rage against the prospective borrower is alight. Antonio hates usury, Shylock practices it. This lies at the root of Shylock’s chagrin against Antonio. Shylock makes no effort to hide his utter disapproval of Antonio’s attitude towards the Jews and his practice of interest-free lending.

Shylock continues to drag his feet with regard to the loan. First, he says he does not have the entire amount ready in hand. He will borrow the shortfall from Tubal, a fellow Jew.  Antonio comes into the chamber.

He makes his formal request to Shylock for the loan offering to pay interest on the loan. It’s easy how Antonio must be feeling while acceding to the demand for interest payment.

Shylock drags the discussion towards the repayment terms and the consequences of possible default.

To justify his charging interest, he cites the story of Jacob & Laban from the Bible. Quite interestingly, Antonio, in his goodness, draws a totally opposite conclusion from the episode.

In Genesis, Jacob is a shepherd who keeps an eye on his uncle Laban’s sheep as they graze. For this service rendered, he was to marry Laban’s daughter. Jacob and his uncle Laban come to an agreement that Jacob would, in due course, get all the striped and spotted animals. Cunningly, Jacob placed striped branches in front of the sheep when they mated, as a result the sheep gave birth to striped lambs. Jacob enriched himself by doing this trick.

Shylock invoked the story to press home the point that one should make some extra income when the opportunity comes. Antonio, a Christian, interprets the story in starkly different way.  He feels that God was kind on Jacob to give him the additional number of lambs.

A Christian and a Jew, thus, argue on the ethics of usury. Antonio loathes it, but Shylock finds it as a legitimate practice.   

Shylock persists in his justification of charging of interest on loans, where as Antonio seethes in anger at the stance of Shylock which he finds as morally reprehensible. He virtually explodes in utter indignation at the Jew.

Antonio’s outrage has little effect on Shylock. He returns to the matter of loan negotiation.

Shylock dithers, and procrastinates, apparently to tease Antonio.

Antonio is restless. He demands to know if Shylock would indeed give him the loan.

Shylock makes use of Antonio’s urgent need of funds that makes him look so vulnerable. Shylock has the upper hand. As the lender, he acidly reminds Antonio of the scorn and humiliation poured on him at Rialto, by the man who stands before him as the borrower. He asserts that charging interest is neither undesirable, nor abominable. Not charging interest was foolish.

Shylock boils in anger as he recalls how Antonio had earlier called him names, spat on him, and excoriated him mercilessly on the principle of usury. Quite tauntingly, he asks Antonio if he would still advance the loan, with all the insults fresh in his mind.

Antonio refuses to be browbeaten by Shylock’s rant. He expresses no remorse and asserts that he would continue to bitterly oppose Shylock’s charging of interest on his loans.

Like a valiant upholder of ethical lending practices, he seeks no mercy or leniency from Shylock. He urges the Jew to perceive him as an enemy and impose such default terms as an enemy.

The wily Shylock softens his stand. Quite intriguingly, he agrees to give the loan interest-free.

Bassanio is pleasantly surprised.

Shylock has hideous motives, though. Putting up a benign appearance, he offers to execute the loan bond adding that it is better if it is done before a notary. Quite light-heartedly, he proposes to incorporate a very dangerous clause for default. In case Antonio failed to repay the amount on the due date, he (Antonio) would give a pound of his flesh carved out if his heart. Antonio is told that it is a joke, but the ulterior intent does not sink into the borrower’s or his friend’s mind at that point of time.

Antonio, unaware of this innocuous clause, accepts it readily.

Bassanio is hesitant. He urges his friend Antonio to step back.

Antonio shrugs off the fears. He feels the occasion of default does not arise as his ships would be home in two months time, and he would have enough money to pay back the loan.

Shylock feigns innocence claiming that the flesh extraction clause is nothing but non-sense. In case of default, what he needs is his money, not some human flesh. He puts up the air of a very friendly lender.

Antomio volunteers to sign the loan deed with that flesh clause.

Shylock asks the two borrowers to proceed to the notary to prepare the loan document. He said he will go to fetch the money in the meanwhile.

Shylock leaves.

Antonio assures Bassanio that nothing untoward is going to happen.

——END OF ACT 1——

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