BB: Merchant of Venice, Act I

Welcome to the Bard Brawl!

This week: our reading of the first act of Shakespeare’s ‘comedy,’ The Merchant of Venice.

Listen to or Download the podcast.

In this act, Shakespeare introduces us to the main characters and sets up the plot elements which will be central to the action of the play.

In the first scene, a young impoverished nobleman name Bassanio asks his melancholic merchant friend Antonio for a loan in order to pursue his courtship of Portia, the lady of Belmont. Antonio explains that his assets are invested in his ‘argosies’ (that is, his commercial shipping) but agrees to taking on a loan with interest on his friend’s behalf.

In the second scene, we learn that Portia has been forbidden by her late father to choose her husband. Instead, he has devised a sort of test in which potential suitors must choose from among three boxes the one containing her picture. The man who does so will win Portia’s hand in marriage. (More on that anon.) Portia and her lady-in-waiting Nerissa discuss the merits of the current batch of suitors and find them both lacking and unwilling to submit to the test.

In the third scene, Bassanio and Antonio meet with Shylock, a jewish moneylender, who agrees to lend out the 3000 ducats required. Instead of taking his usual fee in interest, Shylock proposes a different bargain: if the money is not repaid in full in three months’ time, he will cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. As Antonio is confident that at least some of his ships will make it to port before that time, he agrees to the exchange. This is the origin of the expression ‘a pound of flesh.’

Other characters appearing in this act:

  • Salerio (or sometimes Salarino) and Solanio are gentlemen of Venice who are friends of Antonio and Bassanio.
  • Gratiano is Bassanio’s right hand man and friend. He will accompany him to Belmont.
  • Lorenzo is a young nobleman acquaintance of the group who seeks to marry Shylock’s daughter Jessica.


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