The Merchant of Venice
Act I: Scene 1
Walking along a street in Venice, Antonio (the "merchant" of the title) confesses to his friends Salarino and Salanio that lately he has felt unaccountably sad. They have noticed it, and they suggest that Antonio is probably worried about the safety of his merchant ships, which are exposed to storms at sea and attacks by pirates. Antonio denies this and also denies that he is in love, a possibility that both of his friends think might explain Antonio's pensiveness. Salarino concludes that Antonio's moodiness must be due simply to the fact that Antonio is of a naturally melancholy disposition. At this point, their friends ...view middle of the document...
He says that her beauty and her fortune are so well known, in fact, that she is being courted by "renowned suitors" from all parts of the world. Bassanio, however, is confident that if he could spend as much money as is necessary, he could be successful in his courtship. Antonio understands Bassanio's predicament, but Antonio has a problem of his own. Since all the capital which Antonio possesses has been invested in his ships, his cash flow is insufficient for any major investments at this time. As a solution, however, Antonio authorizes Bassanio to try to raise a loan using Antonio's good name as collateral for credit. Together, they will do their utmost and help Bassanio to go to Belmont in proper style.
The first task confronting any playwright in his opening scene is his "exposition" of that play — that is, he must identify the characters and explain their situation to the audience. Shakespeare accomplishes this task of informative exposition very subtly in the opening fifty-six lines of dialogue between Antonio, Salarino, and Salanio. We learn that Antonio is a wealthy merchant; that he is worried for some obscure reason which makes him melancholy; that he is a member of a group of friends who arrive later — Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano — who represent the lively, convivial life of Venice. And perhaps most important for the purposes of the plot, we are told that Antonio has many shipping "ventures" — mercantile risks — and although he is not worried about them now, the idea is subtly suggested to us that his business ventures on the high seas may miscarry. We should recall this matter when Antonio finally decides to indebt himself to Shylock on Bassanio's behalf.
In this opening scene, Shakespeare begins to sketch in some of the characters and some of the atmosphere of the play. Antonio, for example, is presented as being "sad," afflicted with a melancholy which he himself does not appear to understand. Critics have puzzled over this: is Antonio to be viewed as a normally melancholy character? Is his sadness caused by his knowledge that he may shortly lose the companionship of his old friend Bassanio, who has told him of embarking on a "secret pilgrimage" to woo a beautiful and wealthy woman in Belmont? Or is his mood to be put down simply to an ominous foreboding which he has of some approaching disaster? For all dramatic purposes, in this scene Antonio's gravity serves, foremost, as a contrast to the lightheartedness of his friends.
Despite its dark and threatening moments, one should always remember that The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy and, like most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, it has a group of dashing, if not very profound, young men. For example, Salanio and Salarino are not terribly important. Their lines are interchangeable, and they are not really distinguishable from one another. They represent an element of youthful whimsy. Salarino begins, typically, with a flight of fancy in...