Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Act 1, Scene 3

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Act 1, Scene 3

Read the full text of The Merchant of Venice Act 1 Scene 3 with a side-by-side translation HERE.

  • Back on the mean streets of Venice, Bassanio wheels and deals with Shylock, a Jewish merchant. Bassanio wants 3,000 ducats, or gold coins, on Antonio's credit, with the stipulation that he'll pay them back in three months. Shylock notes that Antonio is likely good for the money, but still, all the man's cash is tied up in potential ventures—none of it actually exists yet. 
  • Shylock gives us a brief look into Antonio's diverse financial portfolio: he's got a ship bound to Tripoli and another to the Indies. In the marketplace, Shylock has heard of even more ships backed by Antonio: a third for Mexico, a fourth for England, and several others.
  • Though all this sailing about seems rather risky, Shylock says he'll lend the money, but would like to speak to Antonio first. Willing to comply, Bassanio invites him to dinner with himself and Antonio. But Shylock isn't having any of it, as it will likely be a Christian dinner with pork, which isn't kosher.  
  • Shylock also says he's not hot about the idea of hanging out with Christians. He says he'll trade with Christians, talk and walk with Christians, but he has to draw a line somewhere, and he's drawn it at eating, drinking, and praying with them.
  • Antonio then enters the scene. Shylock has a nasty little aside (that's when a character says something only the audience can hear) during which he admits that he hates Antonio "for he is a Christian." More than anything else, however, Shylock says he hates Antonio for what he does in the marketplace. Antonio lends out money free of interest, which is unfair competition for the lenders who aren't willing to do so. 
  • We interrupt this program for a history snack about the Elizabethan attitude toward money-lending. The Church believed that interest should never be charged when one Christian loaned money to another Christian. The idea comes from Deuteronomy 23:19-23: "You shall not lend upon interest to your brother, interest on money, interest on victuals, interest on anything that is lent for interest. To a foreigner, you may lend upon interest, but to your brother, you shall not lend upon interest." Christians were allowed, however, to borrow money (with interest) from foreigners. Since Jews were classified as "foreigners" in England, they were encouraged to set up banks when they arrived in the country.
  • Now back to the play.
  • Shylock says he'd like to catch Antonio at a disadvantage so he can get even with him—not only for undercutting him in trade, but also for the nasty things Antonio has said about Shylock. 
  • Shylock talks money with Antonio and Bassanio. He says he can lend the 3,000 ducats; though he doesn't have that sum on hand, he can borrow some from his fellow Jewish friend Tubal. Thus he can meet Bassanio's need for the aforementioned three months. Antonio, who until now has avoided borrowing or lending where interest is involved, justifies his change of heart by stating he'll do anything to help Bassanio—even join the interest game he's so often scorned.
  • Shylock doesn't drop Antonio's seeming hypocrisy so easily. He points out that Antonio is always saying he doesn't believe in charging or paying interest.  
  • Shylock then tells a little story taken from the Bible (Genesis 30:25-43, to be exact) about Jacob's dealings with his Uncle Laban. Jacob was caretaker of his uncle's sheep, and when it came time for mating season, Laban agreed that all the baby lambs with spots would belong to Jacob. When the sheep were ready to mate, Jacob showed them sticks or branches that were spotted, which caused the ewes to have spotted baby sheep. All the spotted sheep were Jacob's, as promised. 
  • Shylock says this is evidence that it isn't a sin to be thrifty—in fact, profit is a blessed thing, so long as you don't steal to get it. (Check out our discussion of this in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" if you want to know more.)
  • Antonio insists the spotted-sheep outcome was more about the will of heaven than Jacob's crafty thrift. He mocks Shylock's attempts to use the Bible as justification for charging interest, and ultimately tells Bassanio that all he's learned from this experience is that even the "devil" can cite Scripture to his purposes.
  • While Antonio has been ranting, Shylock has been busy calculating the interest on the sum he's about to lend. However, hearing Antonio's last remark, he is quickly incited to anger (and to pay attention to further remarks).
  • Shylock points out that in the Rialto (the commercial and business exchange of Venice), Antonio has spit on him, called him a dog, and insulted him publicly for his practice of lending with interest. (Dang. Is this why Shylock says he hates Antonio for being a Christian?)
  • Shylock asks if he's supposed to just forget about Antonio's abuse now that the guy needs some extra cash and wants to borrow money.
  • Antonio doesn't defend himself against these nasty charges. He admits it's true he spat and cursed at Shylock. In fact, he'll probably do it again. He says that Shylock's loan isn't a loan between friends—there doesn't need to be any amity between them. This is just a business transaction, so if he (Antonio) breaks the deal, he'll accept responsibility for it and pay the penalty.
  • After Antonio's mini-flip-out, Shylock's all, "Take it easy, amigo. We can be friends, and I'll forget all those times you were a rotten jerk." I'll lend you what you're asking for, and better still, I won't charge you an extra cent in interest. I'll even play a fun game with you, where we both go to the notary right now and sign a document saying that if you don't pay me what you owe on such and such a date, in such and such a place, then I can have a pound of flesh off your body from wherever I choose." 
  • (Hmm. Shylock insists this is all for "merry sport," but is it? Check out "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" for more about this "pound of flesh" talk.)
  • Antonio thinks this is a good idea.
  • In spite of Bassanio's insistence that it isn't really necessary for Antonio to risk his flesh, Antonio is confident. He thinks he'll have the money in two months, a whole month before the debt is even due. 
  • Shylock also does a good job of easing Bassanio's fear—he asks what on earth he could gain by having a pound of Antonio's flesh.  Clearly, Shylock says, he's only adding the "pound of flesh" caveat for funzies.
  • This being said, the men agree to meet at the notary. Shylock will hand over the money. Antonio notes, "The Hebrew will turn Christian, he grows kind." But Bassanio still thinks there's something wicked going on—in his mind, they're accepting a deal from a crooked guy, which is never a good idea, especially in Venice.

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