Antonio, a prominent merchant, was on his way home from a meeting of Venetian ship-owners. His two friends, Solanio and Salerio, walked with him. The morning hadn’t gone well: Antonio had sat silently throughout. The depression that had fallen on him showed no sign of lifting and the two exchanged glances as their friend stopped at one of the marble columns of the Ca’ d’Oro and gazed out over the Grand Canal. Antonio’s low mood was becoming a worry to them.
A funeral barge, decked in black and gold was passing slowly along the canal and the waves it caused made the gondolas prance and rear like wild black stallions as they strained against the ropes that tied them to their striped poles. Antonio stared out towards the open sea, then sighed and stepped back to join his friends beneath the balcony under which they stood waiting. ‘In all honesty, I really don’t know why I’m so depressed,’ he said. He attempted a smile and failed. ‘It’s exhausting. You say it exhausts you! I don’t know how I caught it, or found it, or came by it: I don’t know what it’s made of or what caused it. I’m so confused that I don’t even know where I am most of the time.’
Salerio put his hand on his friend’s shoulder and nodded reassuringly. ‘Your mind is tossing on the ocean,’ he said. ‘It’s out there with your cargo ships, with their billowing sails, like noblemen and rich merchants of the waves or, if you like, colourful carnivals of the sea, towering above the ordinary ships that bow respectfully to them as the wind hurries them on.’
Solanio nodded. ‘Believe me, sir,’ he assured Antonio, ‘if I had such a valuable cargo on the ocean most of my thoughts would be out there with it. I’d be forever picking blades of grass to gauge which way the wind was blowing: poring over maps, looking for ports and piers and safe havens. Every little thing that might threaten my venture would depress me.’
Salerio agreed entirely. ‘Blowing on my soup to cool it would remind me of what harm a stormy wind might do at sea and blow a chill through me. I wouldn’t be able to look at the sand running through an hourglass without thinking of shallow waters and sandbanks. I’d have an image of my best ship Andrew stuck in mud, her topsail lowered as though for a funeral. I wouldn’t be able to go to church without immediately thinking of the stones it’s built of as dangerous rocks that, just touching my fragile vessel’s side, would scatter all the spices across the sea and clothe it with my silk fabrics. Within an instant I’d be rich and then a pauper again. I couldn’t help being miserable if that happened. So don’t deny it: it must be because you’re worried about your merchandise.’
Antonio looked up sadly. ‘Believe me, no,’ he said. ‘I’m grateful for my good luck. My investments aren’t all in one ship or in one place. My wealth doesn’t depend on this year’s trading. So it’s not my merchandise that’s making me depressed.’
Solanio prodded him playfully in the ribs. ‘Well then, you are in love!’ he teased.
‘Come on, come on!’ said Antonio, and he managed the ghost of a smile.
‘Not in love either?’ Solanio looked thoughtfully at him. ‘Then let us say that you’re sad because you aren’t merry. That if you wanted to you could be laughing and jumping about, saying you’re merry because you aren’t sad. By two-headed Janus, Nature has made some strange people in her time. Some are eternally smiling and would laugh like idiots at the dismal wailing of a bagpipe, while others are so sour that they wouldn’t show their teeth in a smile even if the most solemn man told them the joke was funny.’
Antonio turned again and resumed looking out at the sea. Three young men were coming towards them. When Solanio recognised them he showed his eagerness to pass their friend on to them. ‘Here comes your noble kinsman, Bassanio,’ he said. ‘Goodbye then: we’ll leave you with better company.’
Salerio patted Antonio on the back. ‘I would have stayed to cheer you up if better friends hadn’t prevented me,’ he said.
‘I’m most grateful to you for staying with me,’ said Antonio as he watched his relative and friend approaching with two companions. ‘You have your own business to attend to, though. And this is a good opportunity to do that.’
‘Good morning my lords,’ said Salerio.
Bassanio, and his friends, Lorenzo and Gratiano were smiling round at them.
‘Good gentlemen, both!’ exclaimed Bassanio as he took their hands. ‘When are we going to have a night out and a good laugh together? You’re becoming strangers. Is that what you want?’
Salerio was keen to get on his way and he nodded in agreement. ‘We’ll set a time aside to meet you,’ he said, and with a final bow he and Solanio turned and left.
The three young men were in high spirits, in contrast to Bassanio’s relative, who, although pleased to see them, was unable to show it. Lorenzo nudged Gratiano. ‘Bassanio,’ he said. ‘Now that you’ve found Antonio we’ll leave you. But don’t forget that we’re meeting for dinner.’
‘I won’t fail you,’ said Bassanio.
Gratiano turned to leave then came back and addressed Antonio. ‘You don’t look well, Signior Antonio,’ he said. ‘You let things get you down. Too much worrying isn’t good for you. Believe me, you’ve changed a lot.’
‘I take life for what it is, Gratiano,’ said Antonio. ‘The world is a stage on which everyone has a part to play. Mine is a sad one.’
‘Let me play the fool, then!’ exclaimed Gratiano. ‘Let me be wrinkled from mirth and laughter. And let my liver be heated with wine rather than my heart cooled with sad groans. Why should a hot-blooded man sit like a stone statue of his grandfather, waking up only to doze off again and turn yellow with peevishness? I assure you, Antonio – I speak out of affection for you – there are some men whose faces are blank and expressionless: they do that on purpose, the idea being to appear wise, serious and deep, as if to say ‘I am Master Know-all, and when I open my mouth no dog should dare to bark!’ Oh, my dear friend Antonio, I know of some men who are regarded as wise just because they don’t say anything, when it’s clear that if they did they’d condemn themselves for their stupidity and invite ridicule.’ He saw that Bassanio was trying to catch his eye, indicating to him to stop talking. ‘I’ll elaborate another time,’ he told the expressionless Antonio. ‘But don’t you go fishing for that reputation with this depression as your excuse.’
Bassanio was giving him somewhat angry glances now and Gratiano grabbed hold of Lorenzo’s arm. ‘Come on, Lorenzo,’ he said. ‘Goodbye for now. I’ll finish my homily after dinner.’
Lorenzo laughed and bowed to Antonio. ‘Right then,’ he said. ‘We’ll leave you till dinner-time. I must be one of those silent wise men because Gratiano never lets me get a word in edgewise.’
‘Well keep company with me for just two more years and you won’t even recognise the sound of your own voice!’ said Gratiano.
‘Goodbye,’ said Antonio. He made an effort to respond to their lightheartedness. ‘I’ll try and develop my conversational skills,’ he said.
‘I look forward to that,’ said Gratiano. ‘Silence is only commendable in dried cow tongues and old maids.’
They went off in high spirits, Gratiano whistling.
‘What do you make of that?’ said Antonio.
Bassanio laughed. ‘Gratiano talks more rubbish than any man in Venice. The amount of sense in anything he says is like two grains of wheat hidden in a bushel of chaff: you’d search the whole day before finding them. And if you do find them they aren’t worth the search!’
They started walking, past the grand palaces with their pink and gold-tinted facades and tall arched windows, towards the Rialto. Antonio tried to pull himself out of his dark mood. ‘Well now, Bassanio,’ he said. ‘What about this lady who’s captured your heart – the one you promised you’d tell me about today?’
Bassanio stopped. His face was serious now, intense. ‘Well it’s no secret to you, Antonio, that I’ve squandered my inheritance by living beyond my means. But I’m not complaining about the fact that I have to economise now: my main aim is to repay the large debts I’ve saddled myself with. You’re my main creditor, both in money and in affection. And because of that affection you have for me I feel that I can speak freely about the plans and schemes I have to clear myself of all my debts.
‘Please,’ said Antonio, ‘tell me, Bassanio. And if your plan is honourable – as you are – my wallet, myself, and everything I have, are all at your disposal.’
‘In my school days, if I lost an arrow, I shot another in exactly the same way, watching it closely to see where the first one must have fallen. By risking both I often found both. I’m using this childhood example because what I’m going to propose is just as innocent. I owe you a lot, and what I owe has been lost. But if you would agree to shoot another arrow in the same direction as you shot the first, I have no doubt – because I’ll watch things very carefully – that I’ll either find both or bring the second back to you and still stand by the debt I owed you in the first place.’
‘You know me well enough not to have to waste time beating about the bush,’ said Antonio. ‘By doubting my unreserved support you’re doing me more wrong than you did by squandering my money. Just tell me what you’d like me to do, if you think I can do it, and I’m committed. So talk.’
Bassanio took a deep breath. ‘There’s a rich heiress in Belmont,’ he began. ‘And she’s beautiful: and even better, she’s got wonderful qualities. And I’ve read favourable messages in her eyes. Her name is Portia, and she’s not in any way inferior to Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia. Nor is the wider world ignorant of her qualities because the four winds of the earth blow renowned suitors in from every shore. And her fair hair cascades like a golden fleece and makes her Belmont another Colchos’ beach, and many Jasons come in pursuit of her.’
Bassanio took a few steps toward the canal edge then turned and shook his head. ‘Oh, my dear friend Antonio, if only I had the means to compete with them, I’m absolutely sure that I would win.’
Antonio nodded thoughtfully. ‘You know that all my wealth is at sea. I don’t have the ready cash, nor any merchandise to sell to raise the money at the moment. So go and find out how good my credit is in Venice. Stretch it to the limit to finance your expedition to Belmont, to the beautiful Portia. Go straight away and ask around. I will as well. Find out where money is to be had and I’ll borrow it on the strength of my credit or that of my friends.
Bassanio embraced him and almost ran as he hurried off on his mission.