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Merchant of Venice Notes

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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 Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano join them, and after an exchange of courtesies, Salarino and Salanio excuse themselves. Gratiano takes a long look at his old friend Antonio and playfully chides him for being so solemn and so unduly silent. Gratiano says that he himself never has "moods"; in contrast to Antonio, Gratiano is determined to always "play the fool." Lorenzo intimates that sometimes Gratiano is too much the fool-that is, he is too loquacious. He and Gratiano depart, promising to meet the others at dinner. Left alone with Antonio, Bassanio assures him that he should not worry about Gratiano's critical remarks. Antonio then changes the subject abruptly; he asks Bassanio for more information, as promised, about the certain lady to whom Bassanio has sworn "a secret pilgrimage." Bassanio does not answer Antonio directly; he begins a new subject, and he rambles on about his "plots and purposes" and about the fact that he has become so prodigal about his debts that he feels "gag'd." Antonio tells his friend to get to the point; he promises to help him if he can. Bassanio then reveals his love for the beautiful and virtuous Portia, an extremely wealthy young lady who lives in Belmont. 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.


There is a rumor that a ship of Antonio's has been wrecked off the southeast coast of England. Salanio despairs twice-once because of Antonio's bad luck, and second because he sees Shylock approaching. Shylock lashes out at both men, accusing them of being accessories to Jessica's elopement. They expected as much and mock the moneylender, scoffing at his metaphor when he complains that his "flesh and blood" has rebelled. Jessica, they say, is no more like Shylock than ivory is to jet, or Rhenish wine is to red wine. Shylock then reminds the two that their friend Antonio had best "look to his bond . . . look to his bond." The implication is clear; Shylock has heard of the shipwreck. Surely, says Salarino, if Antonio forfeits the bond, "thou wilt not take his flesh." Shylock assures them that he will, for he is determined to be revenged on Antonio for many grievances, all committed against Shylock for one reason: because Shylock is a Jew. A Jew is a human being the same as a Christian, Shylock continues; like a Christian, a Jew has "eyes . . . hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . [is] hurt . . . subject to the same diseases, [and] healed by the same means." Like a Christian, a Jew bleeds if pricked, and since a Christian always revenges any wrong received from a Jew, Shylock will follow this example. A servant enters then and informs Salanio and Salarino that Antonio wishes to see them at his house. As they depart, Shylock's friend Tubal enters. Tubal has traced Jessica to Genoa, where he has heard news of her but could not find her. Shylock again moans about his losses, especially about his diamonds and ducats; he wishes Jessica were dead. Tubal interrupts and tells Shylock that he picked up additional news in Genoa: Another of Antonio's ships has been "cast away, coming from Tripolis."


She is confident that Bassanio would never, for any reason, part with the ring which she gave him. Angrily, Gratiano tells her that Bassanio did indeed give away his wedding ring; in fact, he gave it to the "judge that begg'd it," just as he, Bassanio, gave his ring to the judge's clerk. Both wives pretend shock and anger, and they vow never to sleep with their husbands until they see their wedding rings again. Bassanio pleads in vain that he gave his ring for good reason to the lawyer who saved Antonio's life. Well, says Portia, since you have been so generous to him, if that lawyer comes here, "I'll have [him] for my bedfellow." "And," adds Nerissa,"I his clerk." Antonio is terribly disturbed as he witnesses Portia's fury; he feels that he is "the unhappy subject of these quarrels." Bassanio then swears that if Portia will forgive him this time, he will never break a promise to her again. Antonio speaks up and offers his soul as forfeit, as before he offered his body, in support of Bassanio. Portia accepts Antonio's soul as security for Bassanio's word. "Give him this [ring]," she tells Antonio, "and bid him keep it better than the other." In amazement, Bassanio recognizes it as the same ring which he gave the lawyer. Nerissa then returns Gratiano's ring to her husband, who receives it in similar amazement. Portia then explains that it was she who was the lawyer Balthasar at the trial of Antonio, and Nerissa was her clerk; they have just returned from Venice. For Antonio, she has a letter containing good news-three of Antonio's ships have safely come into port. Antonio reads the letter himself and is ecstatic: "Sweet lady, you have given me life and living," he says. Nerissa then presents Shylock's deed to Lorenzo and Jessica, bequeathing them all of his possessions. "It is almost morning," Portia observes, and it will take time to explain how all these things happened. "Let us go in," she says, and she and Nerissa will answer all questions.

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