The Sadness of the Merchant
In the opening lines of The Merchant of Venice, the young merchant Antonio is questioned by his friends about his sadness. His friends Salarino, Solanio and Gratiano attempt to determine why Antonio is sad. Antonio denies that his sadness is about his concern for his investments in merchandise at sea. When asked if his melancholy is because he is in love, he answers, “Fie, fie,” which is not exactly a denial, but it does evade the question. Solanio dismisses the issue with, “Then let us say you are sad / Because you are not merry.” Gratiano speculates that Antonio may be assuming an appearance of sadness in order to project a demeanor of gravitas. But Antonio's sadness is never explained.
In addition, this comedy ends with all the young bachelors except Antonio finding a woman to marry, which has led some scholars to infer that his sadness is caused by his unrequited love for Bassanio who instead loves a woman, Portia. If so, Antonio's willingness to risk his life to help Bassanio win Portia's love is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice. This adds a twist and a poignancy to a play that is in part about the nature of christian love and the unchristian behavior of these christian characters.
Portia's introduction to the audience is similar to Antonio's in that she also enters announcing her sadness . And both speak to friends who have trouble understanding what the cause of their displeasure is. However, Portia does express her frustration to Narissa that she can neither choose a husband she would prefer nor refuse a proposal from someone she may dislike. In this introduction Portia reveals intelligence especially in her mastery of language, which is rich with rhetorical fireworks. As in many of Shakespeare's comedies, his female characters outshine the male characters in intellect.