A critical analysis of the opening of The Merchant of Venice

When considering the ways in which Shakespeare opens his plays we sometimes see him begin with exchanges between minor characters of a lower class than the protagonist. One may argue that the reason is to contrast these characters’ low aspirations, trivial disputes or crude fears with the motives and actions of the protagonist, and thus make his motivation seem grander. It is plays like Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet that he opens this way, albeit tragic plays, perhaps opening with something humorous like the night watch being afraid of a ghost contrasts with the pivotal role the spectra will play in conjunction with the hero.

As The Merchant of Venice is a comedy one should analyze the way Shakespeare presents his opening conceit. A Midsummer Night’s Dream begins with Theseus and Hipolyta, the highest-ranking characters and therefore, presumably, the most respected and honorable. Perhaps Shakespeare begins with these in order to heighten the irreverence and insanity of the Mechanicals, particularly Bottom’s delusions of grandeur.

One may say that Shakespeare opens with Antonio, a role model for Bassanio and therefore one may interpret him a man of class by comparison, in extreme melancholy to heighten the spectators’ perception of the revelry of the lovers that is to follow. To focus on the text one might note that the characters enter mid conversation, “you say it wearies you”, as if they began off stage. This places the audience in what may be conceived as a voyeuristic, intrusive role, which to an extent may heighten the excitement of the audience as they feel they are hearing something they should not.

It is clear that Antonio is morose and the audience is inquisitive as to what has caused this state of mind. When one considers that the posters would have promoted this play as ‘The Comedy of the Merchant of Venice’, such an opening line may have initially disappointed spectators looking for some light entertainment to pass the afternoon. Antonio reveals that he does not know the reason for his cheerless disposition, “I am to learn” (Ibid. I.i.5), and places the audience in the same position as he too is attempting to discover the cause.

By engaging and further intriguing the audience in this way Shakespeare secures their attention. The theatre of his day was not as formal as we know it, if people did not like what they saw they heckled the actors or simply left, and a play without an audience was cancelled. One may argue that Shakespeare immediately intrigues his audience through this emotional enigma in order to keep them enthralled and quiet. The last two lines of Antonio’s opening speech creates sympathy for the merchant, this again is at odds with the spectator’s expectations; one does not sympathize in a comedy, and if the eponymous character is depressing it stands the rest of the play in little standing for high spirits. Shakespeare would seem to invert generic convention in order to arrest the attention of his audience. One imagines that Salerio’s tone would greatly contrast that of the merchant’s, and his intelligent speech could go some way to raising a smile from Antonio.


He says, “Your mind is tossing on the ocean” (Ibid. I.i.8), comparing it to the boats that carry the merchant’s wears, this sharp observation would be likely to amuse the audience and establish Salerio as a witty, engaging character which in turn may restore the observer’s faith in this play as a comedy worth watching. In a matter of four lines, Shakespeare switches the emphasis of the scene in order to engage the concentration of the audience. He alters again in turning a potentially humorous observation into an extended and depressing diatribe on the perils of setting one’s fortunes upon the sea.

Salerio and Solanio spend thirty-two lines listing the dangers of the risk Antonio has made in investing his wealth in the hulls of his “argosies with portly sails” (Ibid. I.i.9). One envisions that if Antonio was not depressed about his merchandise before, then he would be now. The humor of this scene appears when, after so much talk of potential tragedy at work being the cause of his sadness, Antonio flatly says, “Believe me, no…my merchandise makes me not sad” (Ibid. I.i.42/46). He could have stopped his friends in their tracks but he chooses to let them finish, thus making them look asinine to the audience because they have wasted much breath knowing “Antonio is sad to think upon his merchandise” (Ibid. I.i.41) when they were wrong.

The humor of Salerio’s and Solanio’s speeches lies in the poetry of their metaphors, which makes it all the more ridiculous when they turn out to be far from the essential truth of Antonio’s sadness. Having compared Antonio’s mind to one of his ships, Salerio proceeds to link everyday activities to the wreckage of ships containing Antonio’s wears. How “My wind cooling my broth/would blow me” (Ibid. I.i.23-4), note the use of an image of wind moving to describe the flow of a man’s thoughts. Then an everyday object like “the sandy hour-glass” (Ibid. I.i.26) and an everyday activity like going “to church” (Ibid. I.i.30) are likewise compared to potential financial ruin, reminding the merchant that his wears might be “but even now worth this, and now worth nothing” (Ibid. I.i.36-7).

The elevated language, like “Enrobe the roaring waters with my silks” (Ibid. I.i.35) makes Antonio’s denial of this being the reason for his sadness all the more anticlimactic and therefore bathetic. One must also consider the opening in the wider context of the play as a whole. Antonio’s melancholy contrasts with the joy of the lovers later and his confidence in the safety of his wears is pre-emptive of the disaster that is to follow. It is quite obvious that Antonio will lose his fortune, as Shakespeare would not have begun with this absolute confidence nor have Shylock request such an outrageous bond if neither were to be called into question. It is difficult to know whether Shakespeare expected his audience to pick up on that fact, perhaps by including this tidbit he attempted to create intrigue as to how this supremely secure merchant would be undone. This opening gambit appears peculiar for a comedy, but I rather feel I have elucidated an aspect of the argument: the melancholy opening serving to amplify the comedy that is to come. It may also be Shakespeare’s way of adding dramatic gravity to a play that might otherwise be dismissed out of hand as frippery by some playgoers who would seek something more provoking than an irreverent comedy.

Therefore I believe it is successful in intriguing, engaging and surprising an audience who no doubt attended the play with many preconceptions. Word count: approx. 1100 Bibliography EN1106 – Shakespeare course booklet, 2003

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I am a Shakespeare fanatic with six years` classroom experience. I enjoy reading a wide range of fiction and non-fiction and became a teacher to share my passion for language. Now that I have a young family, I have decided to indulge my love of teaching outside the classroom to fit arou.... Read More