Plot Summary / The Story-line
Shylock, a Jewish money lender agrees to lend money (3000 ducats) to Bassanio for a term of three months. Bassanio tells him that Antonio will be the guarantor of this loan. But Shylock has a doubt because Antonio has recently invested all his money on his merchant ships. However, Shylock thinks that Antonio’s guarantee is sufficient for providing the loan. Shylock resolves to take Antonio’s bond but he wants to speak to him.
So Bassanio invites Shylock to dine with them. However, the Jewish Shylock, citing pork consummation of the Christians, says that he will talk with them, walk with them, do business with them, but he will not eat or pray with them.
Antonio enters. Shylock confesses his hatred for Antonio in aside. Shylock comments that Antonio is a Christian who provides loan without interest. This creates a problem for Shylock’s usury business where he charges high interest.
How like a fawning publican he looks.
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more, for in that low simplicity,
He lends out money gratis and brings down,
Then rate of usance here with us in Venice”
Beside that Antonio’s denunciation in the public place against Shylock creates a strong enmity in the mind of Shylock. Antonio tells Shylock that he is not habituated to lend money but he does so on the behalf of his friend. Their conversation leads Antonio to chastise the usury business. Shylock defends this business as a way to thrive.
Antonio tells Shylock to lend money as if they are enemies. He also suggests to punish him if the money is not paid back in time.
Shylock pretends that he forgives Antonio and he will lend him money as his friend and he will not take any interest for the loan. However, he proposes that he must take one pound of flesh from Antonio’s body if Antonio fails to pay the loan back in time.
Antonio is confident that he will easily repay the loan and finds it as an interesting deal. So, he instantly agrees with Shylock. Bassanio warns Antonio to rethink. But Antonio assures Bassanio that he will repay the loan before time. Shylock reassures Antonio that he will gain nothing for a pound of human flesh. Bassanio remains suspicious though. Antonio however believes that Shylock has become kinder and could be becoming more Christian:
Hie thee, gentle Jew.
The Hebrew will turn Christian; he
Commentary on Act I, Scene 3
This scene of “The Merchant of Venice” serves two important functions. First, it completes the exposition of the two major plot lines of the play – Antonio agrees with Shylock’s bond – 3000 ducats for one-pound flesh. Second, this scene introduces Shylock. This scene represents Shylock as the most powerful dramatic figure in the play.
Throughout the whole scene, both Antonio and Bassanio often seem naive in contrast to Shylock. He thinks that they want money and both Antonio and Bassanio think they should get loan. But neither one of them understands Shylock’s nature. Shylock understands the word “good” meaning “having enough money” but Bassanio understands the word “good” meaning “good merits of his friend, Antonio”.
Shakespeare often uses soliloquies to allow his heroes and in this case his villain, express their minds. It provides a chance to make clear his intentions and motivations. Shylock is different from Shakespeare’s other villains. These villains present themselves as evil. They try to justify their own villainy. Though Shylock does not present himself in this way. His reactions are relatively open.
Though Bassanio and Antonio fail to understand Shylock’s intentions well, Shylock understands the Christians and their culture very well. The Christian interacts with Shylock only for business (usury) and law. He cannot be the part of the Christian friends group. So, he does not accept Bassano’s invitation to the dinner. Here Shylock reveals his prejudice against the Christians. Shylock and Antonio are diametrical opposites. Shylock is cunning, cautious and crafty. On the other hand Antonio is easy-going, trusting, slightly melancholy, romantic and simple.
This scene shows Antonio’s true love for his friend Bassanio. Only for the behalf of his friend he agrees to Shylock’s terms to take the loan even with the risk of his life. Bassanio’s friendship for Antonio is not to be overlooked either. We see him worried about Shylock’s bond as he senses some kind of risk for Antonio’s life because of him.