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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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SCENE SUMMARIES WITH NOTES

ACT I, SCENE 1

Summary

The play opens in Venice. Antonio, a successful merchant of the city, is melancholy and weary for reasons that he cannot explain to his friends Salarino and Salanio. They think that the sadness arises from all the worries he has in his shipping business. Antonio is neither worried about his ships, nor is he in love.

The three friends are then joined by Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano, and greetings are exchanged. Salarino and Salanio depart, leaving the task to Bassanio, Lorenzo and Gratiano of cheering Antonio. Gratiano accuses Antonio of cultivating a pose of sadness to win a reputation of great wisdom. Lorenzo scolds Gratiano for talking too much, and the two leave. Antonio asks Bassanio about his plans to woo a lady. Bassanio owes Antonio a debt in money and love, but he hopes to be in a position to pay all his debts if he can win the rich and beautiful Portia of Belmont in marriage. He, however, requires money to finance his trip to Belmont in order to seek Portia's hand. Antonio apologizes that his wealth is invested wholly in his ships, which are away at sea. Since his credit in Venice is good, he promises to borrow the necessary money for his friend.


Notes

The scene opens with Antonio displaying his melancholy, which cannot be linked to business or love. Instead, Antonio's vague discontent is a foreshadowing of the threat that Shylock presents. It is also a contrast to the predominant mood of Venice, which is portrayed as a glamorous world of elegance and gaiety.

Antonio is a true Renaissance gentleman, characterized by goodness and faithfulness. His weariness demonstrates his concern for his inner life. His spiritual idealism moves away from the pleasures offered by a material world. He holds "The world but as the world," thus showing his belief that the material world is only a testing ground for a person's soul. His conversation with his friends, Salarino and Salanio, expresses that he is vulnerable.

His friends believe that Antonio's sadness results from the fact that all his wealth is at sea. His ships are described as "Signiores and rich burghers on the flood." According to Salarino, other ships seem to "curtsy to them." Salanio, however, talks about the risks that the ships face. Salarino agrees, and says the ships are at the mercy of the wind and the rocks. The sea and the tempest are used as symbols of forces over which humanity has no control. His ships with their "gentle" sides are symbolic of Antonio's gentle character; the treacherous sea is symbolic of the trouble that the gentle Antonio will experience at the hands of Shylock. If his ships are able to master the seas, they will return with spices and silk, which are eagerly sought in the rich, exotic Venetian state. In return, Antonio will gather more wealth. In a like manner, Antonio must master Shylock in order to retain his wealth and his position in Venice.

Antonio points out that all his wealth is not at risk. He says that his poor spirit is not the result of any anxiety about his cargo. He also mocks the suggestion that he might be in love. Throughout the play, Antonio remains somewhat isolated. He seems rather at odds with the light, happy mood of those around him. The language of the characters reflects the difference. Salarino's and Salanio's rich poetry is elegant and colorful to match their moods. In contrast, Antonio's replies are very plain.

Antonio is joined by more friends -- Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano. Gratiano playfully mocks Antonio for acting melancholy in order to appear to be wise and deep. Despite his scolding Antonio for his bad mood, Gratiano is a sort of a clown. Antonio compares the world to "a stage where every man must play a part," to which Gratiano replies, "Let me play the fool." Antonio and Bassanio agree that Gratiano speaks too much and usually about nothing. Gratiano's merry mood does not, however, cheer Antonio.

Gratiano and Lorenzo leave Bassanio and Antonio alone to talk. Bassanio, having squandered his fortune, is deeply in debt to Antonio. Furthermore, his lifestyle cannot be supported by his present insufficient funds. Antonio responds to Bassanio's worries by promising to help however he can. His generosity is shown when he says to Bassanio, "My purse, my person, my extremest means lie all unlocked to your occasions." Antonio, thus, follows his heart rather than his head, for he himself has no money currently. But because of his goodness and his loyalty to friendship, Antonio is prepared to borrow the money that Bassanio needs to woo the rich and beautiful Portia.

Bassanio describes Portia as fair, beautiful, and virtuous. For all these reasons, he loves her. However, he admits that her wealth is an added attraction. He hopes to win her hand in marriage, which will allow him to restore his own fortunes. Bassanio's desire to marry and settle down reveals that he is now ready to move into a respectable and responsible manhood.

The exchange between Antonio and Bassanio establishes their characters and outlines their devotion to each other. Therefore, in this very first scene of the play, the Themes of generosity, love, and friendship are developed. In contrast, Antonio's melancholy and the symbols of the tempest and the treacherous sea foreshadow the trouble that lies ahead for the kind and generous Antonio.

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