The Merchant of Venice, Act 1 Summary

Table of Contents

Scene 1

Antonio, a Venetian merchant, is introduced in the opening scene where he is complaining to his friends, Salarino and Solanio. He tries to explain his sadness but is unable to find the reason for his happiness. He wails “In sooth, I know not why I am sad.” His friends tries to think of a reason. Salarino says that in all probability Antonio is sad as his ships are all out on the sea and his mind is stuck there on the ocean.

Solanio agrees with his saying that if he too had such a risky venture, his mind would have been stuck there as well. Antonio is not assured by this reason as his success did not depend upon the safe arrival of one ship. Solanio suggests that Antonio is falling in love which Antonio quickly dismisses. 

While on their way out, the three men meet Bassanio, Antonio’s closest friend, walking with two other friends, Lorenzo and Gratiano. Gratiano quickly notices Antonio’s sadness and claims that he is worrying too much of his business to which Antonio replies “For me the world is just a world…a stage where every person has a part to play. I play a sad one.”

Gratiano tries to cheer Antonio up but eventually leaves with Lorenzo. Bassanio says that Gratiano has very little to say, his wise remark is as elusive as “two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff.” Antonio then requests Bassanio to tell about his clandestine love. Bassanio eagerly talks about the woman he has fallen in love,

Portia and hopes to court her by proving himself in front of the other wealthy suitors. In order to do that, he needed money but already owes a lot to Antonio. Antonio, however, says that he is unable to lend money as all his ships are out on the sea but he will provide a guarantee to any loan Bassanio can find in Venice. 

Scene 2

The scene shifts from Venice to Belmont where resides Bassanio’s love, Portia, a rich heiress. Portia complains to her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa of how tired she is because of her dead father’s will which states that she can’t decide whom to take a husband for herself. Portia’s suitors must choose between three chests, one made of gold, another silver and another of lead, and whichever selected contains her portrait will be the one to deuces her fate.

Another condition imposed is that whoever guesses it incorrectly must never marry again in their life. Nerissa then calls out the suitors and Portia points out their flaws one by one.

First there is the Neapolitan prince who is too fond of his horse, then the Palentine court who is very serious and hardly seen smiling at anything, then the young English baron, Falconbridge, who cannot speak any language that Portia can or vice-verse, making a lack of communication prevail, then there is a German suitor of drunkenness, the French lord who tries to outdo everything, even fight his own shadow and the Scottish lord who is meek and timid.

Each of these suitors has left without even trying once and Portia is relieved by this fact. Nerissa then talks about a “Venetian scholar and soldier who accompanied the marquess over Montferrat” implying Bassanio. Portia gushes on hearing his name and admits that he is indeed worthy ofl praise. At that moment, a servant enters and tells Portia that the prince of Morocco is arriving soon, which puts the former in a sad mood.

Scene 3

Bassanio decides to borrow money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender living in Venice. Shylock agrees to lend him three thousand ducats in return for Antonio’s guarantee on the loan. Though initially Shylock is doubtful as all of Antonio’s ships are out on the sea, he eventually agrees on the latter’s guarantee.

When Antonio arrives, Shylock takes him aside and complains to him how he is making the lives of moneylenders like him difficult by giving loans to others without taking any interest. Antonio says in return that he is borrowing money only for his friend’s sake from Shylock and will pay as much as interest is charged.

This leads to Antonio chastising Shylock on his greedy business of moneylending. Shylock then remembers how Antonio used to abuse him by saying “misbeliever, cut-throat dog/ And spit upon Jewish gaberdine.” Antonio replies that he doesn’t repent what he said and will go on saying this again, insisting Shylock that he lend money as an enemy.

Shylock jokingly said that in assurance to be friends, in case Antonio is unable to repay the loan, Shylock would be able to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. At this point, Bassanio warns Antonio to not enter into any such agreements but Antonio, being confident that his ships will bring a lot of success to him, agrees to the condition laid down by Shylock.

Shylock tries to dismiss Bassanio’s suspicion by saying that he will gain nothing by procuring Antonio’s flesh. Shylock then goes off to the notary’s office to sanctify the bond and Antonio remarks to Bassanio about Shylock’s sudden generosity whereas Bassanio remains suspicious until Antonio assures him that his ship will return bearing profits in two months.