Act 1, scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice introduces us to the main male characters in the play (except for Shylock whom we’ll meet in scene 3). Antonio is the merchant of the play’s title (Shylock is not a merchant, he is a moneylender, but many think the play’s title refers to him, it doesn’t). He talks a lot about being “sad” and his friends also discuss his state of mind. The word “sad” in Shakespeare’s English has a somewhat different meaning than it does for us. Someone who is sad in the 16th century is usually serious or sober and possibly depressed, but not sad as in grieving for someone or something. I think if you imagine Antonio as feeling depressed rather than sad, you’ll have a better sense of his state of mind. No one seems to know why Antonio is depressed, including Antonio himself, and this is one of the mysteries of the play that never gets fully explained. One thing is clear though, he has lots of friends and they all want to cheer him up. Gratiano, the joker in the bunch, gets him to cheer up briefly, but the only person Antonio seems truly happy to see is his friend Bassanio, clearly, the person in the world whom Antonio is most fond of (Antonio has no wife or children).
Antonio is a merchant and he makes his living by sending out ships to gather goods from the New World and Asia and India (silks and spices are the cargo mentioned in the scene). Then he sells those goods in Venice possibly to individuals and shop owners. Venice was a large city and a trading hub in the 1500s (the play was written in 1594). The big risk in Antonio’s line of work is that the ships which bring his goods to Venice might sink somewhere out in the ocean. But he tells his friends Salerio and Solanio that he’s not worried about his finances because he has more than one ship going to different destinations and also enough savings to survive some losses (see lines 41-45).
Bassanio is a gentleman, not a merchant. This means he comes from a noble family and thus doesn’t work for a living. But though he can claim a nobleman’s status, he doesn’t have much money, probably just a rather small income from a family estate. Yet he likes to live as though he does have a lot of money and as a result has to borrow money from his friends, particularly Antonio, in order to keep up his gentleman’s lifestyle. In scene 1 he is worried about how much money he owes to Antonio (see lines 121-133, pp. 30-31). Bassanio has a plan to repay Antonio. He proposes his plan to Antonio in lines 139-151 where he uses a complicated metaphor about finding a lost arrow by shooting the second one in the same direction (“In my school days, when I had lost one shaft”). He describes his actual plan in lines 160-175 on page 32 in the speech beginning “In Belmont is a lady richly left.” Antonio replies that he will help Bassanio in any way that he can though he doesn’t have much cash on hand at the moment.
In the text box below, please answer the following questions:
1. Explain what Bassanio’s plan is.
2. Look at Antonio’s willingness to keep spending money on Bassanio’s “project” even when he himself is short on cash. Is he just interested in getting his money back or is it the friendship that is more important? (Another way of thinking about this would be to consider what Antonio’s priorities are in this conversation with Bassanio.)