'The Merchant of Venice' Act 1 Summary

19th Century Engraving of the Merchant of Venice
Getty Images/Andrew Howe

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is a fantastic play and boasts one of Shakespeare's most memorable villains, the Jewish moneylender, Shylock.

This Merchant of Venice Act 1 summary guides you through the play's opening scenes in modern English. Here, Shakespeare takes the time to introduce his main characters - most notably Portia, one of the strongest women parts in all Shakespeare's plays.

Act 1 Scene 1

Antonio is speaking to his friends Salerio and Solanio. He explains that a sadness has come over him. His friends suggest that his sadness could be due to him worrying about his commercial ventures. He has ships at sea with merchandise in them and they could be vulnerable. Antonio says he is not worried about his ships because his goods are spread between them and if one went down he would still have the others. His friends suggest that he must then be in love, Antonio denies this.

Bassanio, Lorenzo, and Graziano arrive as Salerio and Solanio leave. Lorenzo says that now Bassanio and Antonio have been reunited they will make their leave but arrange to meet up later for dinner. Graziano tries to cheer Antonio up but to no avail, he tells Antonio that men who try to be melancholy in order to be perceived as wise are deceived. Graziano and Lorenzo leave.

Bassanio complains that Graziano has nothing to say but just will not stop talking. “Graziano speaks an infinite deal of nothing” (Act 1 Scene 1)

Antonio asks Bassanio to tell him about the woman he has fallen for and intends to pursue. Bassanio acknowledges that he has borrowed a lot of money from Antonio over the years and promises to clear his debts to him:

To you Antonio, I owe the most in money and in love, And from your love I have a warranty to unburden all my plots and purposes how to get clear of all the debts I owe.
(Act 1 Scene 1).

Bassanio explains that he has fallen in love with Portia the heiress of Belmont but that she has other richer suitors, he just wants to try to compete with them in order to win her hand. He needs money to get there. Antonio tells him that all his money is tied up in his business but that he will act as a guarantor for any loan that he can get.

Act 1 Scene 2

Enter Portia with Nerissa her waiting woman. Portia complains that she is weary of the world. Her dead father stipulated, in his will, that she herself cannot choose a husband.

Portia’s suitors will be given a choice of three chests; one gold, one silver, and one lead. The winning chest contains a portrait of Portia and in choosing the correct chest he will win her hand in marriage. He must agree that if he chooses the wrong chest he will not be permitted to marry anyone.

Nerissa lists suitors who have come to guess including the Neopolitan Prince, County Palatine, A French Lord and an English nobleman. Portia mocks each of the gentlemen for their shortcomings. In particular, a German nobleman who was a drinker, Nerissa asks if Portia remembers him she says:

Very vilely in the morning when he is sober, and most viley in the afternoon when he is drunk. When he is best he is little worse than a man, and when he is worse he is little better than a beast. An the worst fall that ever fell, I hope I shall make shift to go without him.
(Act 1 Scene 2).

The men listed all left before guessing for fear that they would get it wrong and face the consequences.

Portia is determined to follow her father’s will and be won in the way in which he wished but she is happy that none of the men who have come have succeeded.

Nerissa reminds Portia of a young gentleman, a Venetian scholar, and soldier who visited her when her father was alive. Portia remembers Bassanio fondly and believes him to be worthy of praise.

It is announced that the Prince of Morocco is coming to woo her but she is not particularly happy about it.