The title character of this work is not the figure of greatest interest. Indeed, during most productions, Antonio fades from audience concern, and Shylock dominates the action the way he has dominated centuries of criticism. No character of Shakespeare's has aroused more passionate debate, to such an extent that The Merchant of Venice has been attacked, censored, and even banned across our country and the world on the grounds that it is anti-Semitic. We shall consider this issue presently.
The primary source of the play is the story of Gianetto, found in a medieval Italian anthology called Il Pecorone (The Simpleton) by Ser Giovanni Florentino. This tale contains the crucial element of the pound of flesh as well as the woman disguised as a lawyer appearing in the courtroom to ensure that not a single drop of blood is shed. The casket story may have come from another medieval collection, the Gesta Romanorum, first translated from Latin about 1524.
Shylock does not take the stage for some time. Instead, Antonio opens the play by establishing a tone that pervades the story:
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad; It wearies me, you say it wearies you; But how I caught it, found it, or came by it, What stuff 'tis made of, whereof it is born, I am to learn; And such a want-wit sadness makes of me, That I have much ado to know myself.
(I, i, 1-7)
Antonio communicates his unhappiness as well as his inability to fathom that condition. Life itself, or at least life as he knows it, enervates him spiritually, and at this moment we wonder why he should be so unhappy. So do his friends, Salerio and Solanio, who try to assure him that his ships and financial affairs are secure. As will prove typical of almost everyone in Venice, they assume that a person's emotional state is directly related to that person's financial state. But Antonio denies any connection (I, i, 45). Solanio next assumes that Antonio