Antonio, a Venetian merchant, complains to his friends, Salarino and Solanio, that a sadness has overtaken him and dulled his faculties, although he is at a loss to explain why. Salarino and Solanio suggest that his sadness must be due to his commercial investments, for Antonio has dispatched several trade ships to various ports. Salarino says it is impossible for Antonio not to feel sad at the thought of the perilous ocean sinking his entire investment, but Antonio assures his friends that his business ventures do not depend on the safe passage of any one ship. Solanio then declares that Antonio must be in love, but Antonio dismisses the suggestion.
The three men encounter Bassanio, Antonio’s kinsman, walking with two friends named Lorenzo and Gratiano. Salarino and Solanio bid Antonio farewell and depart. When Gratiano notices Antonio’s unhappiness and suggests that the merchant worries too much about business, Antonio responds that he is but a player on a stage, destined to play a sad part. Gratiano warns Antonio against becoming the type of man who affects a solemn demeanor in order to gain a wise reputation, then he takes his leave with Lorenzo. Bassanio jokes that Gratiano has terribly little to say, claiming that his friend’s wise remarks prove as elusive as “two grains of wheat hid in two bushels of chaff” (I.i.
At Belmont, Portia complains to her lady-in-waiting, Nerissa, that she is weary of the world because, as her dead father’s will stipulates, she cannot decide for herself whether to take a husband. Instead, Portia’s various suitors must choose between three chests, one of gold, one of silver, and one of lead, in the hopes of selecting the one that contains her portrait. The man who guesses correctly will win Portia’s hand in marriage, but those who guess incorrectly must swear never to marry anyone. Nerissa lists the suitors who have come to guess—a Neapolitan prince, a Palatine count, a French nobleman, an English baron, a Scottish lord, and the nephew of the duke of Saxony—and Portia criticizes their many hilarious faults. For instance, she describes the Neapolitan prince as being too fond of his horse, the Palatine count as being too serious, the Englishman as lacking any knowledge of Italian or any of the other languages Portia speaks, and the German suitor of drunkenness. Each of these suitors has left without even attempting a guess for fear of the penalty for guessing wrong. This fact relieves Portia, and both she and Nerissa remember Bassanio, who has visited once before, as the suitor most deserving and worthy of praise. A servant enters to tell Portia that the prince of Morocco will arrive soon, news that Portia is not at all happy to hear.
The first scene of the play introduces us to a world of wealthy, upper-class Christian men living in Venice. Their conversation reveals that they are men of business who take great risks with money and are careful to avoid seeming overly concerned about their investments. For example, Antonio calmly denies his associates’ suggestion that he is worried about his ships, and Salarino’s description of a shipwreck, with silks enrobing the roaring waters and spices scattered upon the stream, is lyrical and poetic rather than practical or business-minded. Significantly, the conversation throughout this opening scene is not really about business, but rather Antonio’s emotional state—his friends see it as their duty to cheer him up. We may infer that money is very important to these men, but the code of manners that they share requires them to act as though friendship, camaraderie, and good cheer matter more than money. For example, Salarino excuses himself by asserting that his only concern is to make Antonio merry and that he is leaving because better friends have arrived, but Antonio knows that Salarino is leaving to attend to his own business affairs. The Christian men of the play share a certain set of values, but these values are not always entirely consistent or self-evident.
However, if the professions of affection between Antonio and the other merchants simply seem like good manners, Antonio’s loyalty toward his friend Bassanio is obviously quite sincere. Where Bassanio is concerned, love and friendship really are more important to Antonio than money. When Bassanio asks for help, Antonio promptly offers all of his money and credit, insisting that they go straightaway to a lender so he can stand as security for Bassanio. Antonio’s defining characteristic is his willingness to do anything for his friend Bassanio, even lay down his life. Beyond this willingness to sacrifice himself for Bassanio, Antonio is a relatively passive character. He begins the play in a dreamy melancholy that he does not know how to cure, and throughout the play he never takes decisive action in the way that Bassanio, Portia, and various other characters do. He approaches life with a pensive, resigned, wait-and-see attitude, like a merchant waiting for his ships to return.
One possible explanation for Antonio’s melancholy is that he is hopelessly in love with Bassanio. Although he never admits it, the evidence suggests that he is in love with somebody. His friends think he is in love, and while he denies the suggestion that he is worried about his ships with a calm, well-reasoned argument, he responds to the suggestion that he is in love with a simple “[f]ie, fie” (I.i.
Act I, scene ii introduces Portia, the heroine of the play, and establishes the casket test through which she will find a husband. After we see more of Portia, her compliance with her dead father’s instructions may seem odd, as she proves to be an extremely independent and strong-willed character. However, her adherence to her father’s will establishes an important aspect of her character: she plays by the rules. Her strict adherence to laws and other strictures makes her an interesting counterpoint to Shylock, the play’s villain, whom we meet in the next scene.
Because Portia is such a fabulously wealthy heiress, the only men eligible to court her are from the highest end of the social strata. As a result, the competition between her suitors is international, including noblemen from various parts of Europe and even Africa. Portia’s description of her previous suitors serves as a vehicle for Shakespeare to satirize the nobleman of France, Scotland, Germany, and England for the amusement of his English audience. At the end of the scene, the arrival of the prince of Morocco is announced, introducing a suitor who is racially and culturally more distant from Portia than her previous suitors. The casket test seems designed to give an equal chance to all of these different noblemen, so the competition for Portia’s hand and wealth in Belmont parallels the financial community of Venice, which is also organized to include men of many nations, Christian and non-Christian alike. Portia’s remarks about the prince of Morocco’s devilish skin color, however, show that she is rooting for a husband who is culturally and racially similar to her. In fact, she hopes to marry Bassanio, the suitor with the background closest to hers.