This page from Act 1 Scene 1 depicts the beginning of Bassanio's request to Antonio for a loan so that he can attempt to propose to Portia. The page is rich with meaning in terms of the language of money, classical allusions, and the relationship between the two characters. Thus, we've decided to standardize letters and spelling to ease the reading of the page so that a wider audience can conduct a more in depth analysis.
The focus of this reading will be tracing the language of money and desire across the page. "The Merchant of Venice" as a whole is saturated with the language of money and this page is no exception. Whenever either character talks about money or uses the language of money, meaning a word associated with money but perhaps to discuss something else, it will be noted. Green will be used to depict the language of money. The relationship between these two characters is also important to the play. Antonio cares greatly for Bassanio, and in some readings is even considered to possibly be in love with him. Other relationships also play important roles in the play. Therefore, whenever the characters mention or express desire in some way, it will be noted in pink.
Additionally, classical allusions will also be explained in order to allow for a better reading, particularly if they have relevance to the themes of money and desire.
the Merchant of Venice
Antonio: I pray you good Bassanio let me know it,
And if it stand as you your self still do,
within the eye of honor, be assured
My purse, my person1, my extremist means
Lie all unlocked to your occasions.
Bassanio: In my school days, when I had lost one shaft2,
I shot his fellow of the self same flight
The self same way, with more advised watch
To find the other forth, and by adventuring both,
I oft found both: I urge this childhood proof
Because what follows is pure innocence.
I owe you much, and like a willful youth
That which I owe is lost, but if you please
To shoot another arrow3 that self way
which you did shoot the first, I doe not doubt,
As I will watch the aim or to find both,
Or bring your latter hazard bake again,
And thankfully rest debtor for the first.
Antonio: You know me well 4, and herein spend but time
To wind about my love with circumstance,
And out of doubt you do me now more wrong
In making question of my uttermost
Then if you had made me waste of all I have:
Than do but say to me what I should do
That in your knowledge may by me be done,
And I am pressed unto it: therefore speak.
Bassanio: In Belmont is a Lady richly left,
And she is fair, and fairer then that word,
Of wondrous virtues, sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages5:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato's daughter, Brutus' Portia6,
Nor is the wide world ignorant of her worth,
For the four winds7 blow in from every coast
Renowned suitors, and her sunny locks
Hang on her temples like a golden fleece8,
which makes her seat of Belmont Cholchos'9 strand,
Image credit: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library, copy G.176.16. The most excellent historie of the merchant of Venice. First Quarto. London: 1600.
Citing this page: Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice, A4r. London: 1600. Cacodemon Digital Shakespeare. Edited by Dan Carr and Michaela Boneva. Source edition: Rare Books & Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library (copy G.176.16). http://cacodemonshakespeare.com/comedies/merchant/a4r/.
- Here, the sound of ‘purse’ and the sound of ‘person’ are played with - suggesting that Bassanio’s interest in Antonio could only be financially related.
- It is possible that Bassanio shows some desire towards Antonio in this passage in the use of the word “shaft” which could be viewed as suggestive.
- In this paragraph, Bassanio tells a story of shooting one arrow, losing it, shooting a second, and watching it more closely in order to find the first. He does this as a way to ask for more money from Antonio after he has already lost some. However, this story also compares money and wealth to weaponry. Throughout the play, money is clearly a means of power: it is only the wealthy who can possibly propose to Portia and it is the wealthy who have more power in Venice. Later, the pound of flesh that Antonio promises Shylock if he cannot repay his loan suggests money as direct power over flesh. Here, money’s comparison to a weapon that pierces the body also suggests the power that money has over others.
- Following the paragraph where Bassanio uses language of weaponry to talk about money, Antonio continues the play’s motif by using the language of money to talk about love, viewing Bassanio’s feelings towards him as finite and expendable. Through a queer lens, this can be interpreted as Antonio mourning the loss of Bassanio through both heteronormative society that keeps them apart, but also Bassanio’s interest in Portia and Antonio’s money rather than his person.
- This is a moment where desire is shown from outside the two present characters. Bassanio suggests that he and Portia have spoken before and she has indicated interest in him.
- Portia was the daughter of Cato, a Roman Senator and the second wife of Brutus, a Roman senator who is most well known for coordinating the murder of Julius Caesar. Known to be able to hold secrets, as she gashed her leg and hid it to prove herself. She committed suicide, allegedly by swallowing hot coals.
- The four winds here could refer to the four wind gods in Greek mythology, one for each cardinal direction, or a biblical reference, for which the four winds also referred to directions as well, indicating that Portia’s suitors come from all over the world, as is later reflected by the Morrocan Prince who seeks her hand. The desire surrounding Portia is strong, but whether it is for her or for her money is unclear.
- Allusion to the Golden Fleece of Greek Mythology. The Golden Fleece was from a ram sired by Poseidon and Theophane, a nymph. It was retrieved from Colchis by Jason and his crew, the Argonauts, with the help of Medea, who he would eventually marry. The fleece gave Jason the rightful claim to the throne of Thessaly.
- “Cholchos” is an alternative spelling of Colchis, where the Golden Fleece was kept. Here, Shakespeare continues the metaphor of comparing Portia to the Golden Fleece, comparing Belmont, her abode, to Colchis.