he play opens in Venice, where the merchant Antonio tells his
friends, “I know not why I am so sad.” His friends—Salerio and
Salanio, and then Lorenzo and Gratiano—try to cheer him up, but
with no success. Antonio’s close friend Bassanio informs him that
he intends to seek an heiress’s hand in marriage, but needs money
to do so. Antonio, wanting to please Bassanio, offers to borrow
3,000 ducats on his behalf to help his suit (he has no ready money
since his wealth is all invested in merchant ships that have not yet
returned to Venice with their goods).
The scene shifts to the play’s other locale, a fabulous place called
Belmont, where a rich, dead father controls the fate of his daughter
Portia. According to the terms of her father’s will, Portia must accept
as her husband the first man who can solve a riddle and choose the
right one from among three caskets—ornamental boxes—of gold,
silver and lead. The lucky choice holds the portrait of Portia within.
Those who choose incorrectly must leave Belmont at once and agree
never to marry. Suitors come from afar to engage in this contest, but
the only man Portia wishes to marry, she tells her servant Nerissa, is
a Venetian named Bassanio.
The scene returns to Venice, where Bassanio visits a Jewish
moneylender, Shylock, and persuades him to lend the 3,000 ducats.
Antonio has agreed to be bound for him in case of forfeiture.
Antonio and Shylock despise each other: Antonio, because Shylock
lends money at interest; Shylock, because Antonio spurns him like
a dog and spits on him in the street. The “merry” bond to which the
two men agree is that if the money is not repaid by the day specified,
Shylock may cut off a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio is
confident that his treasure-laden ships will return to Venice in time
to repay the loan.
Meanwhile, Shylock’s clownish servant Launcelot Gobbo tells his
father, old Gobbo, that he wishes to leave Shylock and serve