Act I

Antonio, a Christian trader, is awaiting the arrival of his ships. He is in a foul temper and his friends Salarino and Solinio attempt to raise his spirits. Bassanio, a local aristocrat whose profligacy has left him on hard times, enters. The Christian community is portrayed as remarkably tight-knit; Bassanio reveals that he has a plan by which he hopes to pay off many of his debts. Antonio says to Bassanio:

"I pray you, good Bassanio, let me know it;
And if it stand, as you yourself still do,
Within the eye of honour, be assured,
My purse, my person, my extremest means,
Lie all unlock'd to your occasions."

Bassanio intends to marry Portia, a rich heiress from Belmont, thus securing his financial future. However, in order to court Portia, Bassanio needs to give the impression that he is wealthy, not just a scrounger attempting to secure his fortune through a fortunate marriage. He asks Antonio to loan him money, but Antonio says that all his wealth is tied up in his foreign enterprises; however, he offers to borrow money for Bassanio - his credit being worth more in Venice:

"Thou know'st that all my fortunes are at sea;
Neither have I money nor commodity
To raise a present sum: therefore go forth;
Try what my credit can in Venice do:
That shall be rack'd, even to the uttermost,
To furnish thee to Belmont, to fair Portia."

Portia is being wooed by many suitors, as one leaves another arrives, but she remembers fondly the soldier Bassanio who stayed with her many years ago.

Meanwhile Bassanio enters into negotiations with Shylock, a Jew who has made his money through usury. Bassanio asks for money from Shylock, telling him that Antonio will act as guarantor. Shylock bears an unstated grudge against Antonio, but agrees to make the loan, if he can meet with Antonio first. Bassanio invites him to dinner, but Shylock refuses, showing a strength of feeling and conviction in his ideals that neither the weak Antonio nor the playboy Bassanio can manage:

"Yes, to smell pork; to eat of the habitation which
your prophet the Nazarite conjured the devil into. I
will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you,
walk with you, and so following, but I will not eat
with you, drink with you, nor pray with you."

Shylock despises Antonio because he lends money without charging interest, thus making Shylock's profession more difficult and more scorned. Antonio is shocked that Shylock wants him to pay interest on the loan for Bassanio. In this section, the antipathy between the Christians and the Jew is made all too clear. However, the traffic is not all one-way. Shylock is portrayed as being much more worldly and at home in the cutthroat world of business, whereas the Christians seem naïve and over-trusting. Furthermore, when Shylock details the bullying tactics of the Christians, how they spit on him and insult him, we can understand his wish to exact some sort of revenge - although the method chosen is in keeping with his vicious nature.

Shylock's form of money lending - by which he charges interest - is financially sound, whereas the Christian method is economically unviable. Shakespeare may well be quietly mocking the Christians throughout the play with his use of the pun between 'usury' and 'ewes'. He refers to making his money breed as fast as ewes and lambs. Whenever sheep are referred to, the images are favourable to Shylock. This is because he is 'fleecing' the Christians. It is to Antonio's peril that he presumes that Shylock is merely making a rather dark-humoured joke when he asks for a pound of flesh as surety.

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.

Content, i' faith: I'll seal to such a bond
And say there is much kindness in the Jew."

Antonio is, however, unworried. His ships return with their various goods within the month and he should have no trouble in paying Shylock.

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