Explanatory Notes for Act 1, Scene 1
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.
The opening passages of a play must put the reader in possession of the essentials on which the plot is based: the place, the circumstances, and the relation of the persons who are to figure in the story. The title has already conveyed to our minds the place, Venice: to the ears of the contemporaries of Shakespeare, the celebrated mart of the East, a synonym for political power, opulence, and glittering barbaric profusion. A merchant of Venice was thus no ordinary man; but, as Antonio is later called,
a "royal merchant," one whose dealings were with kings, and on
a scale of magnitude and splendor. In this opening scene the keynote is struck in Antonio's unreasoning sadness; and the circumstance that he has many ships on many seas, together with the thought of the risks of such ventures, is impressed on the reader's mind. Then follows the entrance of Bassanio with his friends, the merry mood of Gratiano contrasting with the melancholy of Antonio; and the scene ends with Bassanio's confession of his hopes as to Portia, and Antonio's generous offer of his credit to further them. We have in this scene Antonio in doubt as to his argosies abroad, but staunch in his friendship; and we have Bassanio embarked on his project, the winning of Portia. It is out of these
two circumstances that the two main stories of the drama grow.
Shylock, as the name of a Jew, was known in prose tracts and in
a ballad of Shakespeare's time. Its origin may have been in the
Italian name, Scialocca.
4. stuff. Compare Tempest, iv. 1. 156:
"We are such stuff
As dreams are made on."
5. I am [yet] to learn, is the fuller modern phrase. Elizabethan
English often thus omits a word. Compare The Two Gentlemen
of Verona, ii. I. 59.
8. ocean. Pronounced as three syllables.
9. argosies. An argosy was usually a large merchantman; and
the word was probably derived from the town of Ragusa or
Arragosa, which enjoyed a large trade with England in the sixteenth century.
11. pageants. The pageant was the stage on which the old
popular plays were acted in the streets. The word was often used
of the plays themselves. Shakespeare here likens the lofty
merchantmen with sails spread to these tall and decorated
13. curtsy. "Suggested by the rocking, ducking motion in the petty traffiquers caused by the wake of the argosy as it sails past
15. venture. What is risked in a merchant's voyage.
18. Plucking the grass, to test the direction of the wind by
dropping it from the hand.
25. hour-glass. An hour-glass, placed near the pulpit, was
commonly used to mark the duration of the sermon in Shakespeare's day.
27. Andrew, the name of the ship.
35. worth this. The thought is probably here completed by a
gesture of the actor.
50. Janus, the Roman guardian deity of gates, represented with
two heads because every door looks two ways.
56. Nestor, the oldest and hence the gravest of the heroes.
67. You grow exceeding strange. Compare the modern, "You are becoming quite a stranger."
67. must it be so? Must you really go? or, perhaps, Must you
continue such a stranger?
74. You have too much respect upon the world. You have too much regard for the world's opinion.
75. They lose it. It here refers to the opinion of the world.
78. a stage, etc. Compare the famous passage: "All the world's
a stage," As You Like It, ii. 7. 139.
79. play the fool. The fool, with his cap, bells, and bauble, was
a favorite character in the old comedy.
84. grandsire cut in alabaster, an allusion to the tombs of old
time, of which a stone or alabaster figure of the deceased formed
a conspicuous part.
85. jaundice. This disease was supposed to cause everything
to appear yellow to the person afflicted with it. Compare Troilus
and Cressida, i. 3. 2.
89. cream and mantle, thicken in scum on the surface and completely cover. Notice the Elizabethan freedom which compels the
noun, without change in form, to do service as a verb.
93. As who shall say, in modern phrase, "As if one should
say." An old idiom very common in Shakespeare. See below,
i. 2. 50.
93. I am, sir, an oracle. This is the reading of the folios; the
quartos read Sir Oracle.
96, 97. reputed wise For saying nothing. Compare Proverbs, xvii.
28: "Even a fool when he holdeth his peace is counted wise; and
he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding."
98. If they should speak, [they] would, etc. Shakespeare often
omits the nominative when the sense will easily supply it, as here.
See Hamlet, ii. 2. 67; iii. I. 8. This passage contains an allusion
to Matthew, v. 22: "Whosoever shall say to his brother ... 'Thou
fool,' shall be in danger of hell fire."
101. melancholy bait, i.e. melancholy as a bait.
125. continuance, i.e. continuance of.
126. make moan to be abridged, complain that I am cut short.
137. Within the eye of honor, within the limits of what can be considered honorable.
139. occasions, to be pronounced as four syllables. The terminations ion and ian are commonly pronounced as two syllables;
see ocean above, i. I. 8.
141. fellow of the self-same flight, an arrow of the same length, weight, and feathering, calculated to carry the same distance.
143. To find the other forth, to find out the other. Compare
Comedy of Errors, i. 2. 37. This line is two syllables longer than
the usual decasyllabic line of English blank verse; but it runs easily
off the tongue in precisely the interval of time required for a verse
of ten syllables. Shakespeare wrote for the ear, and not for the
eye; and these "irregularities," as they are sometimes called, are
not only true to the speech of his day, but are often real beauties
from the variety which they give to the versification.
145. pure innocence, childish foolishness. Bassanio is anxious
that his friend, Antonio, shall understand that he himself fully
appreciates the real folly of his plan to throw good money after
156. In making question of my uttermost, in doubting my readiness to do my utmost in your service.
165, 166. nothing undervalued To ... Brutus' Portia, i.e.
when brought to the side of, and compared with Brutus's Portia.
See below, ii. 7. 53. Portia, wife of Brutus, a woman of renown
for her greatness of spirit, figures in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.
171. Colchos' strand, in allusion to the story of Jason, the famous
leader of the Argonauts, who sought and found the golden fleece in
Colchos by the aid of Medea, whom he made his wife and brought
back to Greece.
185. of my trust or for my sake, in consequence of my credit
or for the sake of my friendship.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co., 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/merchant_1_1.html >.