Shakespeare’s use of foreshadowing in The Merchant of Venice frequently appears in wordplay, meaning that the playwright embeds references to future events in words and phrases that only appear portentous after the fact. This particular foreshadowing technique tends to be rather subtle and hence difficult to notice in an initial viewing or reading of the play. As such, the use of foreshadowing in Merchant tends not to be as central to the plot as it is in many of Shakespeare’s other plays. It does not, for example, create the sense of a world ordered by something like fate, as is the case in a play like Romeo and Juliet, where the “star-crossed lovers” are clearly destined for tragic death. Instead, the world of Merchant gets its structure from secular, human-created institutions such as finance and law. With less emphasis on a sacred or divine order, the technique of foreshadowing takes on a less obvious or symbolic role. Nevertheless, a couple of key examples of foreshadowing do stick out, particularly with regard to the fates of Antonio and Shylock.
Shakespeare foreshadows Antonio’s grim future in the first scene, when it becomes clear that he has made the excessively risky decision to invest all of his money in a single fleet of merchant ships. Antonio knows this was a poor decision, which explains why he feels the need to lie to Salarino and Solanio: “My ventures are not in one bottom trusted, / Nor to one place, nor is my whole estate / Upon the fortune of this present year” (I.i.42–44). Later in the same scene, however, Antonio openly admits to Bassanio that “all my fortunes are at sea,” and he explains further: “Neither have I money nor commodity / To raise a present sum” (I.i.177–79). Not only has Antonio irresponsibly invested all of his fortunes, but he has also run out of collateral to raise more funds. Furthermore, Antonio has also stretched his credit “to the uttermost” (I.i.181), making it yet more difficult for him to acquire the cash Bassanio needs to pursue marriage with Portia. The fact that Antonio would persist with securing a new loan given his already dire financial situation strongly suggests that he’s headed for more trouble.
In addition to foreshadowing Antonio’s financial collapse, the play’s first scene also portends the gruesome terms of Shylock’s loan. When Bassanio initially broaches the subject of money, Antonio immediately pledges himself at his friend’s service and tells Bassanio: “be assured [that] / My purse, my person, my extremest means / Lie all unlocked to your occasions” (I.i.137–39). Although Antonio simply expresses a general willingness to help, the offer of his “[his] person, [his] extremest means” also takes on a grim second meaning in the play’s third scene, when Shylock requires a pound of Antonio’s flesh in the event that he fails to repay a loan. Shylock himself hints at this peculiar loan term when he explains to Bassanio, “My meaning in saying he is a good / man is to have you understand me that he is sufficient” (I.iii.13–14). By “sufficient” Shylock means that Antonio possesses enough wealth to guarantee a loan, but his wording turns ominous when he repeats it shortly thereafter: “The man is, notwithstanding, sufficient” (I.iii.23). Shylock subtly introduces the possibility that Antonio’s physical person—the man himself—will serve as collateral, and not his reputation.
Woven into the personal conflict between Antonio and Shylock is the religious conflict between Christianity and Judaism. In the world of the play, Christianity holds the primary position of power. From the outset, then, Shylock the Jew already occupies a subordinate social position, which suggests that things aren’t likely to work out for him. Yet in spite of this imbalance, power shifts in Shylock’s favor when Antonio comes to seek a loan from him. Shylock uses the opportunity to explain why he charges interest on loans, a much-hated practice stereotypically associated with Jewish moneylenders. Shylock cites the story of Jacob from the book of Genesis as a biblical justification for the practice. After citing scripture, however, Shylock explains that he will not charge Antonio interest on his loan. Surprised by this Christian-like act of kindness, Antonio refers to Shylock as a “gentle Jew”—where gentle means “benevolent” but also puns on gentile, which means “Christian.” After Shylock leaves, Antonio insists that, given his display of mercy, “The Hebrew will turn Christian” (I.iii.173). Antonio’s words prove unexpectedly prescient when Shylock loses the court case in Act IV and is forced to convert to Christianity.