I’m struck by how business-like, but also light and amusing, the first two scenes are. As in all comedies we start with problems, things wrong, and right away with Antonio’s complaint about his melancholy. This leads to his current financial situation and need for cash if he’s to fit Bassanio out for Belmont, as well as Bassanio’s debts and empty purse. But then there’s the matter of Portia’s strange requirement from her father, “curbed by the will of a dead father.” And eventually the bond with Shylock. Interestingly, the romantic element seems solved almost as soon as we’re aware of it. Bassanio has designs on the “lady richly left” and Portia responds enthusiastically to Nerissa’s mention of the Venetian scholar and soldier, even remembering his name. Shylock seems bit irritable, but we understand why, given his position as a Jewish money-lender in Venice, even if the curious bond doesn’t seem seriously threatening.
I’m also struck by a certain hard-headedness in the Venetian world, where ducats count. Salerio and Salanio immediately assume Antonio’s depression must be caused by the uncertainty of a merchant’s life, though he denies it. If he’s to lend money to Bassanio, it will have to be by credit. Even Belmont has its threats of unpleasant and unworthy suitors, though Portia seems to laugh it off. Bassanio refers to Portia’s money right off, pleased that he received fair speechless messages from her eyes, but pleased also by her money. If he’s to win her, he’ll need money he doesn’t yet have, to make a worthy appearance. So both Venice and Belmont require cash, and what’s needed depends on a money-lender, whose very definition of a good man depends on his financial sufficiency.
I think we assume Antonio is older than his friends, perhaps because of the “fie, fie” when Solanio suggests his melancholy may be caused by love. The opening scene seems to set Antonio’s depression off against the rather poetic representations of Salerio and Salanio and the jokey, maybe teasing response to Antonio by Gratiano. I think the impression is of a rather happy-go-lucky set, with Antonio the one discordant presence. Bassanio extols Portia as rich, beautiful, smart, and well known, and doesn’t at all undervalue his chances with her — if only he had the cash to put on a good show.
The second scene, in prose, seems to correspond directly with the first, but now in Belmont with equally witty women — even wittier than the men? Her gallery of various nationalities seems to depend on stock characteristics, wittily expressed. Presumably the dumbshow of the English suitor depended on audience familiarity with critiques of contemporary travelers.
Real conflict appears to emerge when Bassanio visits Shylock; the latter’s aside raises a sense of threat that comes of his grievance. His characterization nevertheless seems surprisingly sympathetic. I recall that his speech, “Signor Antonio, many a time and oft . . .” was something we were assigned to memorize in my Jesuit high school, and I can still recite it. The merry bond introduces threat of course, but also seems poised between threat and seeming benevolence. And we recall his opening sense of Antonio, who now looks less attractive.
What do we make of Antonio, and why is he the title character?
Yes, it’s interesting that the problems in this comedy — Bassanio’s lack of money and the restrictions on Portia’s choice — appear to be quickly solved, or solvable. We assume that Bassanio and Portia are going to get together. But this is perhaps a different kind of comedy, a darker one, in which new matter will be introduced to complicate our initial response.
You suggest that the first two scenes are “light and amusing” and the characters “happy go lucky.” You could certainly play them that way, and it might create an atmosphere that Shakespeare is soon going to darken and complicate. But couldn’t you also play Solerio and Solanio as glib lightweights, all froth and no substance, what Shylock will call “shallow foppery” (2.5.35)? Bassanio says that Gratiano “speaks an infinite deal of nothing” (1.1114). As we will soon enough see, Solerio and Solanio have an ugly side, especially when they talk about Shylock. Maybe the preoccupation with ducats is a signal that that’s all they really care about.
Antonio seems different. He seems to care about Bassanio. Solerio and Solanio are guessing that his melancholy is due to love — and maybe it is. (It’s a bit like Twelfth Night, which opens with Orsino moping because of love.) I’ve often wondered whether in MV it is homosociality — men freely saying that they “love” each other — or an unconfessed homosexual attachment. Yes, Antonio is named in the Dramatis Personae as “a merchant of Venice,” and the darker side of the play in some sense centers on him, and on Shylock, as antagonists. In the opening scene I think Antonio is presented sympathetically, his sadness in contrast to the jokey banter of his friends. He responds quickly and warmly to Bassanio’s request for money, and at this point I don’t think we wonder if he is behaving imprudently by offering to borrow the money himself (since everything he has is tied up in his ships at sea).
In 1.2, set in Belmont, Portia, like Antonio, is “aweary of this great world” — though I don’t think we believe her for a minute. Her language is indeed witty, and it suggests that the scene should be played lightly. It would probably be difficult to give the scene a dark edge, even though her situation is a hard one, her will curbed by her father’s, and because he is a “dead father” he cannot be persuaded or tricked (as often happens in comedy).
1.3 doesn’t feel like we’re in a comedy any more. It introduces Shylock, and sends contradictory signals: one the one hand Shylock bears an “ancient grudge” and is a userer, who only lends money at interest. On the other hand he has been badly treated in the past, and is badly treated in this scene, especially by Antonio. It’s odd that, having spat on Shylock’s gabardine, Antonio, when he needs money, turns first to Shylock. Is he oblivious to the hostility he has shown in the past? It’s also odd that Shylock, having been insulted, agrees to loan the money, and to ask for no interest. Is it possible that he is already hatching a plot to gain revenge by extracting a pound of flesh? Does he somehow soften in the course of the scene, or is he continuing to feed his ancient grudge? How does he think the transaction is going to end?
We are invited to contrast Shylock and Antonio. One is an “adventurer” who takes big risks — with his ships, and by loaning money that he doesn’t have, and at no interest. The other insures himself against risk, either by means of interest or a bond. Antonio is generous, but maybe imprudent. And he undercuts the moneylenders by loaning money gratis. Shylock is careful, cautious.
Interesting that Shylock doesn’t have the ready cash either. He says he’ll get it from a fellow Jew, Tubal. (Won’t he have to pay interest?). So is he acting in a business-like way?
Merchant of Venice, Act 1