Walking along a street in Venice, Antonio (the "merchant" of the title) confesses to his friends Salarino and Salanio that lately he has felt unaccountably sad. They have noticed it, and they suggest that Antonio is probably worried about the safety of his merchant ships, which are exposed to storms at sea and attacks by pirates. Antonio denies this and also denies that he is in love, a possibility that both of his friends think might explain Antonio's pensiveness. Salarino concludes that Antonio's moodiness must be due simply to the fact that Antonio is of a naturally melancholy disposition. At this point, their friends Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano join them, and after an exchange of courtesies, Salarino and Salanio excuse themselves. Gratiano takes a long look at his old friend Antonio and playfully chides him for being so solemn and so unduly silent. Gratiano says that he himself never has "moods"; in contrast to Antonio, Gratiano is determined to always "play the fool." Lorenzo intimates that sometimes Gratiano is too much the fool — that is, he is too loquacious. He and Gratiano depart, promising to meet the others at dinner.
Left alone with Antonio, Bassanio assures him that he should not worry about Gratiano's critical remarks. Antonio then changes the subject abruptly; he asks Bassanio for more information, as promised, about the certain lady to whom Bassanio has sworn "a secret pilgrimage." Bassanio does not answer Antonio directly; he begins a new subject, and he rambles on about his "plots and purposes" and about the fact that he has become so prodigal about his debts that he feels "gag'd."
Antonio tells his friend to get to the point; he promises to help him if he can. Bassanio then reveals his love for the beautiful and virtuous Portia, an extremely wealthy young lady who lives in Belmont. He says that her beauty and her fortune are so well known, in fact, that she is being courted by "renowned suitors" from all parts of the world. Bassanio, however, is confident that if he could spend as much money as is necessary, he could be successful in his courtship. Antonio understands Bassanio's predicament, but Antonio has a problem of his own. Since all the capital which Antonio possesses has been invested in his ships, his cash flow is insufficient for any major investments at this time. As a solution, however, Antonio authorizes Bassanio to try to raise a loan using Antonio's good name as collateral for credit. Together, they will do their utmost and help Bassanio to go to Belmont in proper style.
The first task confronting any playwright in his opening scene is his "exposition" of that play — that is, he must identify the characters and explain their situation to the audience. Shakespeare accomplishes this task of informative exposition very subtly in the opening fifty-six lines of dialogue between Antonio, Salarino, and Salanio. We learn that Antonio is a wealthy merchant; that he is worried for some obscure reason which makes him melancholy; that he is a member of a group of friends who arrive later — Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Gratiano — who represent the lively, convivial life of Venice. And perhaps most important for the purposes of the plot, we are told that Antonio has many shipping "ventures" — mercantile risks — and although he is not worried about them now, the idea is subtly suggested to us that his business ventures on the high seas may miscarry. We should recall this matter when Antonio finally decides to indebt himself to Shylock on Bassanio's behalf.
In this opening scene, Shakespeare begins to sketch in some of the characters and some of the atmosphere of the play. Antonio, for example, is presented as being "sad," afflicted with a melancholy which he himself does not appear to understand. Critics have puzzled over this: is Antonio to be viewed as a normally melancholy character? Is his sadness caused by his knowledge that he may shortly lose the companionship of his old friend Bassanio, who has told him of embarking on a "secret pilgrimage" to woo a beautiful and wealthy woman in Belmont? Or is his mood to be put down simply to an ominous foreboding which he has of some approaching disaster? For all dramatic purposes, in this scene Antonio's gravity serves, foremost, as a contrast to the lightheartedness of his friends.
Despite its dark and threatening moments, one should always remember that The Merchant of Venice is a romantic comedy and, like most of Shakespeare's romantic comedies, it has a group of dashing, if not very profound, young men. For example, Salanio and Salarino are not terribly important. Their lines are interchangeable, and they are not really distinguishable from one another. They represent an element of youthful whimsy. Salarino begins, typically, with a flight of fancy in which Antonio's ships are described as being like "rich burghers on the flood" and like birds, flying "with their woven wings." He continues into a delightfully fantastic series of imaginings; on the stage, of course, all this would be accompanied with exaggerated gestures, intended to bring Antonio out of his depression.
Thus, through the presentation on the stage of the sober, withdrawn Antonio, surrounded by the frolicsome language and whimsy of the two young gallants, Shakespeare suggests in compressed form two of the elements of the play — the real dangers that the merchant of Venice will face and the world of youth and laughter which will be the background to the love stories of Bassanio and Portia, Lorenzo and Jessica, and Gratiano and Nerissa.
This same note of gentle raillery is carried on when we see the entrance of three more young courtiers — Bassanio, Gratiano, and Lorenzo. Again, Antonio's mood is remarked on. Here again, Shakespeare is using Antonio as a foil for the spirited byplay of the others. Gratiano, especially, is ebullient and talkative, yet he is quite aware of his effervescence; he announces that he will "play the fool"; Gratiano talks, Bassanio tells Antonio, "of nothing, more than any man in all Venice," and his willing accomplice is Lorenzo; significantly, both of these characters are more distinctly drawn than Salanio or Salarino, and they will play more major roles in the development of the romantic plot and subplot of the play — Gratiano with Nerissa, and Lorenzo with Jessica.
One of the major purposes of this opening scene is to introduce Bassanio and his courtship of Portia, which will constitute the major romantic plot and also set the "bond story" in motion. Antonio's question concerning Bassanio's courtship of Portia is turned aside by Bassanio; he goes directly to the question of money, in order that the basis for the bond story can be laid. Some critics have seen in Bassanio's speeches some evidence of a character who is extremely careless of his money and very casual about his obligations; he seems, furthermore, to have no scruples about making more requisitions of a friend who has already done much for him. Yet clearly Shakespeare does not intend us to level any harsh moral judgments at Bassanio. According to the Venetian (and Elizabethan) view, Bassanio is behaving as any young man of his station might be expected to behave; he is young, he is in love, and he is broke. The matter is that simple. Antonio's immediate reassurance to his old friend reminds us of the strong bond of friendship between the two men. Interestingly, neither of them seems to be unduly concerned about money at this point; one is a wealthy merchant and the other, a carefree young lover.
This is a quality which we shall notice throughout the play in connection with both Bassanio and Portia; both of them recognize the necessity of money, but neither of them considers money to be of any value in itself. In their world of romantic love and civilized cultivation, they feel that they don't need to be unduly concerned with money. Shakespeare is setting up this point of view to contrast later with Shylock's diametrical point of view. For Shylock the moneylender, money constitutes his only defense against his oppressors.
Considering again Bassanio's problem with money and Antonio's reaction to it, note that Bassanio is straightforward in this scene with Antonio. His request is made "in pure innocence," and we take it at its face value. Those critics who decry Bassanio read more into his frank confession of poverty and his attempt to borrow money than is really there. We must recall that when Shakespeare wants to make us aware of some defect in one of his characters, he is always able to do so. The absolute and unconditional friendship between Antonio and Bassanio is one of the assumptions of the play, and we must never question it.