Despite the general public’s assumption that the title character of The Merchant of Venice is Shylock, the first speaker of the play, in a line that can only be described as a quiet opening opening, is our Merchant, Antonio:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad.
and while I know I’ve at times been in the “dumps” and couldn’t explain why, Antonio’s inexplicable position isn’t exactly Shakespearean…
Now while the footnote of the Pelican Shakespeare defines “sad” as “serious, thoughtful,” our modern meaning of “sorrowful” was in use at the time, and it fits here, too. Our title character is sad; he claims to not know the reason himself.
His friends attempt to explain his sadness, citing his business risks (his merchant ships on excursions), then even say he’s in love; Antonio denies all. When his friend Bassanio arrives, we learn that Bassanio owes Antonio “the most in money and in love” (I.i.131), and because of his love, he knows he can confide in Antonio what is the cause of Bassanio’s debts:
In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues.
O my Antonio, had I but the means
To hold a rival place with one of them,
I have a mind presages me such thrift,
That I should questionless be fortunate!
— I.i.161-163, 173-176
Bassanio wants to woo a rich woman, but needs cash to do it. While Antonio cannot give Bassanio money himself as his “fortunes are at sea” (I.i.177), he agrees to have Bassanio go and “try what (Antonio’s) credit can… do” (180).
In Act One, Scene Two, we meet the woman Bassanio pursues, Portia, as well as her waiting woman Nerissa. If Antonio is “sad,” Portia is “aweary of this great world” (I.ii.1-2). And why? Remember how Bassanio wants to woo Portia? Well, he’s not the only one wooing her. And she “cannot choose one, refuse none” (I.ii.25); it seems her late father has left “three chests of gold, silver, and lead” (I.ii.28-29), by which suitors will be awarded her hand in marriage.
Nerissa asks if Portia cares for any of the suitors, going over each one by one. Portia criticizes every man, some for his nationality, others for his personality, bemoaning that even as she “shut(s) the gate on one wooer, another knocks at the door” (I.ii.127-128). And the next wooer is “the Prince of Morocco” (I.ii.120).
Act One, Scene Three takes us into the midst of a conversation between Bassanio and a money-lender: Shylock, who finds the transaction–“three thousand ducats…for three months… (for which) Antonio shall become bound” (I.iii.1,3,6)–“well” (I.iii.1,3,6). However, Shylock has his doubts: he knows Antonio’s “ventures (are) squandered abroad” (I.iii.20-21).
To ease these doubts, he wants to speak with Antonio. Bassanio asks if Shylock would join them for dinner, and it’s only now that we get spoken evidence of Shylock’s Jewry when he insults Bassanio’s Jesus, his “prophet the Nazarite” (I.iii.32), and says that he “will not eat…drink…nor pray” (I.iii.35-36) with Bassanio and Antonio.
When Antonio arrives, Shylock gives the audience its first aside of the play, and any doubt of Shylock’s antipathy toward Christianity is removed: “I hate him for he is a Christian” (I.iii.39). The hatred is returned openly by Antonio as he calls the Jew a “devil… a villain” (I.iii.95,97). This only leads to Shylock declaring open verbal warfare on Antonio, declaring that he will lend Bassanio the money, but under one condition:
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express'd in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
a neat piece of foreshadowing, no?
A pound of flesh, to which Antonio agrees, confident. In fact, he jokes to Bassanio that “the Hebrew will turn Christian; he grows kind” (I.iii.176).
Bassanio doesn’t like the deal, but Antonio feels he has a right to his confidence: his “ships (will) come home a month before the day” (I.iii.179) the debt comes due.
And with this confidence, Act One ends.