The Merchant of Venice: Act 1, Scene 1 to 3 - Summary

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Plot Summary

Act 1, Scene 1

      The first act of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice opens in Venice. Antonio, a merchant who owns several cargo ships, is talking about a sadness that he feels but cannot explain. Bassanio, a dear friend of Antonio's, arrives; they greet one another, and shortly afterward, Bassanio asks Antonio if he can borrow some money. Bassanio has devised a plan, he says, by which he can pay back all his debts. There is a beautiful woman in Belmont, Bassanio tells Antonio, whose father was a king. The father has died, leaving all his wealth to his daughter, Portia. Suitors, wishing to become Portia's wife, are lining up at her door, hoping to win her hand. However, they first must guess a riddle that Portia's father has devised. Bassanio needs the money to buy new clothes in order to make a good impression and to sail to Belmont and try his luck in figuring out the puzzle and thus winning the beautiful (and rich) Portia.

      Antonio replies that he would do anything for Bassanio. However, all Antonio's money is tied up in his ships. He gives Bassanio a signed slip of paper and tells him to go out and see if he can gain credit in Antonio's name.

      This scene establishes the close relationship between Antonio and Bassanio and also sets up the events that will occur as a consequence of Antonio's and Bassanio's actions.

Act 1, Scene 2

      Scene 2 is set in Belmont, where Portia lives. Here the audience hears Portia complaining about her father's will that commands her to stand passively by, watching suitors try to win her by guessing which out of three chests contains her picture. She feels helpless, unable to choose her own husband and unable to deny a suitor to whom she is not attracted. Portia's servant maid, Nerissa, teases Portia, telling her that the whole world should have the problems of Portia - a woman who does not want for any material goods. Nerissa also reminds Portia that Portia's father was a wise and virtuous man and must have known what he was doing. By having suitors challenged by the test, her father knew that the one who figured the puzzle out would be the man best suited for his daughter and would provide Portia with a man she could truly love.

      Portia and Nerissa look out at the suitors who have lined up to test their luck. The two women privately judge them by their appearances and manners and make fun of them. Then Nerissa remembers a handsome man who once visited Portia's father at Belmont and asks Portia if she remembers the man called Bassanio. Portia does recall Bassanio as having been very attractive and intelligent. Nerissa states that of all the men who have come to Belmont, she believes Bassanio is the most deserving of Portia.

Act 1, Scene 3

      In Venice, Bassanio meets with Shylock to ask him if he will lend him money. Bassanio mentions Antonio's name when he asks to borrow money. Shylock tells Bassanio that he is well acquainted with Antonio and knows Antonio is a good businessman. Shylock also mentions that shipping can be a tricky business because a ship can go down in a storm. However, he suggests that he is willing to consider the loan.

      Bassanio asks Shylock to dine with him and Antonio, but Shylock points out the disparity between Christians and Jews. Shylock tells Bassanio that he will walk, talk, sell, and buy with them, but he will not eat or pray with him.

      Antonio enters the scene. In an aside (as if Shylock is talking to himself or directly to the audience), Shylock states that he hates Antonio because he is a Christian. Then Shylock discusses the interest rate that he will charge, how long he will hold the loan, and other terms of lending money. Shylock chides Antonio, reminding him that Antonio used to say he would neither lend nor borrow money. Shylock also reminds Antonio how he has, in the past, insulted Shylock in the Rialto, the meeting place of businessmen in Venice. Antonio, in the past, has called Shylock names and has also spit on him. Shylock finds humor in the fact that Antonio must now come to him to borrow money.

      Antonio makes it clear to Shylock that this loan in no way should be interpreted that he wants to be friends with Shylock. He tells Shylock that it is best that they remain enemies. Then, if Antonio should fail to pay back the loan, Shylock can gain great happiness in the forfeiture. Shylock pretends to be offended by this. He mockingly tells Antonio that to prove he lends this money to Antonio in friendship, he will not charge him any interest. Instead, Shylock will write up a bond that Antonio must sign, a contract that states if Antonio does not pay the money back in three months, Shylock can take his payment in the form of one pound of Antonio's flesh from any part of Antonio's body that Shylock determines.

      Bassanio is shocked. He does not want this heavy weight on his conscious and tells Antonio not to sign the contract. Antonio waves Bassanio off. Antonio is sure that he will have ten-fold the money he owes Shylock in three months. Shylock again contends that he loans this money in friendship. What profit would he gain from a pound of flesh, he asks Antonio?

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