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The Merchant of Venice
William Shakespeare


THE STORY, continued

ACT III, SCENE I

While walking down a street in Venice, Solanio and Salerio discuss some recent bad news. The Venetian ship destroyed in the English Channel is Antonio's after all. The two friends wonder out loud how such a good, honest man as Antonio can have such bad luck.

Salerio and Solanio's good opinion does not extend to Shylock. Meeting the moneylender on the street, they immediately ask him what's new- knowing very well that Shylock must still be upset about his daughter's elopement. When Shylock mourns that his own "flesh and blood" has rebelled against him, the young men begin to taunt him. He and Jessica were no more alike, they say, than ebony and ivory, or red wine and white wine. What they really want to know, Salerio says, is whether Shylock has heard any more news about Antonio's ships.

Obviously, Shylock already knows about the loss of Antonio's ship. Antonio, he replies, had better not forget the bargain he made at the time of the loan.

Surely Shylock wouldn't take the pound of flesh even if Antonio did fail to pay his loan, Salerio says. What would it be good for? Why, for revenge! Shylock answers.

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, passions.... If you prick us,
do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us,
shall we not revenge?

NOTE: Has it occurred to you that Salerio and Solanio- not to mention Antonio himself- were awfully naive to believe that Shylock would not try to take Antonio's flesh? Although none of these men like or respect Shylock, it never occurs to them that he might hate them enough to want revenge for all the times he has been insulted.

Shylock's answer to Salerio's question is worth studying very carefully in its entirety. Some readers have called it the most powerful plea for tolerance in all of English literature. Others feel that it must be respected as the most forthright statement of human equality ever written, at least up until modern times. Certainly, it expresses in strong terms the conviction that all human beings share the same physical makeup, the same emotions and so, by extension, the same motives for good or evil.

Did Shakespeare intend this speech to be taken so seriously? Readers point out that Shylock never mentions the higher human functions, such as thought and spirituality. Animals also share many of the qualities that Shylock enumerates. They, too, can be made to bleed, they respond to being tickled, they die if fed poison. The last response that Shylock mentions is, however, uniquely human: revenge. You will have to decide for yourself why the playwright chooses to emphasize the reactions he does.

Tubal, a friend of Shylock's and fellow Jew, arrives bearing both welcome and unwelcome news. Another of Antonio's ships has been lost near Tripolis and his creditors are predicting that he will be forced to "break"- that is, declare bankruptcy.

Tubal also reports that Jessica and Lorenzo have been seen in Genoa where she spent fourscore (eighty) ducats in one night and sold one of Shylock's rings to buy a pet monkey.

Shylock gloats over Antonio's bad luck and curses his daughter for stealing his money and jewels. "I would my daughter were dead at my foot, and the jewels in her ear," he says angrily. His reaction to the news that Jessica has sold his turquoise ring is more likely to touch our sympathies. The ring, Shylock recalls, was a gift from Leah (presumably his dead wife) before his marriage. "I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys" he sighs.

NOTE: What do you think about Jessica's behavior? It may be difficult to forgive a daughter who would steal her father's money and then spend it on silly extravagances, like a pet monkey. Elizabethan audiences probably felt, on the other hand, that there was no more appropriate punishment for a miser than to have a child who turns out to be a spendthrift. Whether you agree or not depends on whether you find yourself identifying with Shylock or with his rebellious daughter.

ACT III, SCENE II

Bassanio is in Belmont, ready to try his luck with the test of the three caskets. It is obvious that Bassanio and Portia have fallen in love. She begs him to put off the test for a few days so that they can enjoy each other's company, and declares that if it weren't for her sworn promise, she would be happy to tell him which casket is the right one. Bassanio insists on going through with the test right away. The suspense is torture, he says. He feels as if he were "on the rack."

Portia calls for music to be played before Bassanio makes his choice, explaining that music is an appropriate accompaniment to both joyous occasions and sad ones.

The lyrics to the song Portia calls for are:

Tell me where is fancy bred,
Or in the heart, or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
Reply, reply.
It is engend'red in the eyes,
With gazing fed, and fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.

NOTE: Fancy is a superficial attraction, in the sense of "taking a fancy" to someone or something. The song, then, says that fancy begins in the eyes- not the heart or the head. It also dies there. The word 'lie' has a double meaning, suggesting both that fancy lies in its "cradle" (the eyes) and that it is deceiving.

Is Portia giving Bassanio a hint after all? Many readers think so. Notice that the first lines of this song- bred, head and nourish'ed- all rhyme with lead, the casket which we know, by the process of elimination, must be the right one. The song is also a warning against trusting the inclinations of one's eyes- which would naturally tempt a suitor to choose the more beautiful and valuable-looking chests.

Other readers insist just as strongly that it would be against Portia's character for her to break the rules of her father's will by telling Bassanio the right answer. What do you think?

Debating his choice, Bassanio notes that outward appearances can be deceiving. Vice can be made to look like virtue. Beauty cannot be evaluated by weight like other commodities, since those who have the most of it are often the "lightest." (Light, in Elizabethan English meant morally loose and unchaste, as well as light in weight.) Bassanio calls gold "hard food for Midas"- recalling the myth of how Midas starved after he got his wish that everything he touched would turn to gold. And he dismisses silver as a "common drudge"- the everyday medium of exchange in business. Thus, by a process of elimination, he chooses the lead casket, explaining that its "plainness moves me more than eloquence."

NOTE: In some editions of the play you will find the word "paleness" in place of "plainness." Most scholars nowadays agree that "plainness" is the word Shakespeare originally, used. "Paleness" is a characteristic of silver.

Of course, we already know that Bassanio has made the correct choice. But what about Bassanio's reasons for settling on it? Do they surprise you? Some readers have objected that Bassanio has so far not seemed to be the type of person who looks beneath surface appearances. Also, his speech might seem more appropriate in a story such as Cinderella, where the inner beauty of the heroine is not immediately apparent. In Portia's case there is no discrepancy between external appearance and inner worth; she is as beautiful and rich as she is virtuous! Why should her portrait be in the lead casket?

On the other hand, you will recall from Act II, Scene VII that the motto on the lead casket read: "Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath." Unlike Portia's previous suitors, Bassanio is neither too proud nor too cautious to mind taking risks. We have already learned this about him- even though, as some readers point out, it is Antonio who has risked the most. The scene does not tell us that external beauty and true worth never go together. What it does seem to be saying is that you will never find the hidden joys of true love unless you are willing to take chances. The most obvious difference between Bassanio and the other suitors is that he is in love. He has risked offering his heart to Portia.

Portia, of course, is overjoyed by Bassanio's choice. For his sake, she says, she can only wish that she were even richer and more beautiful than she is. "What is mine is yours" she declares. As a token of her pledge, she gives Bassanio a ring, cautioning him that if he ever loses it or gives it away it will be a sign that their love is about to end.

NOTE: The language that Portia uses in pledging herself to Bassanio accentuates the play's theme of love as a form of wealth. Describing herself, Portia sounds almost like an accountant reading a balance sheet. She talks of the "sum" of her virtues and hopes that they will "exceed account." In wishing that she could increase her beauty and her fortune, she calls to mind the way that money multiplies by earning interest.

After congratulating the lovers, Gratiano and Nerissa make an announcement of their own: They, too, have fallen in love, and before the test of the caskets Nerissa had vowed that if Bassanio won Portia, she would marry Gratiano. Bassanio agrees that the two couples should get married in a double ceremony.

At this moment, Salerio, Lorenzo and Jessica arrive with a letter from Antonio. All of Antonio's ships have been lost, he is broke, and he is unable to repay the loan to Shylock. Since making good on his "bond"- the promised pound of flesh- is sure to cost him his life, he is writing to forgive all Bassanio's debts to him. He begs, however, that for the sake of their friendship, Bassanio come back to Venice to see him one last time before he dies.

Bassanio is deeply moved by his friend's troubles and is guilt-stricken for being the one who has endangered Antonio's life. Portia immediately urges Bassanio to go back to Venice and repay the loan with her money. Offer Shylock twice what he has coming to him, she says, even twenty times as much, whatever it will take to satisfy him.

The two couples hurry off to the church to be married. Afterward Bassanio and Gratiano leave immediately with Salerio for Venice.

ACT III, SCENE III

Back in Venice, Antonio has been allowed to leave his jail cell long enough to go to Shylock and plead for mercy. Antonio is accompanied by his jailer and his friend Solanio. Shylock, however, refuses even to listen to what Antonio has to say. You called me a dog, Shylock reminds Antonio. Well, since I'm a dog, "beware my fangs."

After Shylock leaves, Antonio comments to Solanio that he knows why Shylock hates him. On many occasions, he has helped out friends who would otherwise have lost their property to the moneylender, in forfeit for unpaid debts. Solanio remarks that the Duke, the ruler of Venice, will surely never force Antonio to pay this particular forfeiture. Antonio disagrees. If the Duke does not uphold the law, he says, he will undermine the reputation of Venice and that could influence foreigners against doing business there. For the sake of commerce, a bona fide contract must be upheld.

Antonio adds that he has given up all hope, and he jokes bitterly that he has lost so much weight from worry that he may not have a pound of flesh left tomorrow when Shylock is due to collect on the bond.

ACT III, SCENE IV

The scene now shifts back to Belmont where we find Lorenzo praising Portia for sending Bassanio on his errand of mercy.

"I never did repent for doing good," Portia answers. Since Antonio is a dear friend of her "lord" Bassanio, she adds, then he might as well be her lord, too. She will do anything she can to help him.

In the meantime, Portia tells Lorenzo, she and Nerissa have made a vow to go into retreat where they will pray and meditate until their husbands' safe return. She asks Lorenzo and Jessica to stay in Belmont and look after her house until she returns.

Portia then calls aside her servant Balthasar and orders him to deliver a letter to her cousin Bellario, a doctor of law in Padua. Bellario will give Balthasar some paper and clothing which he is to take straight to Venice, where Portia will meet him by the public ferry.

Balthasar leaves on his errand and Portia, now alone with Nerissa, confides that she has a secret plan. The two women are going to dress up as men and go to Venice to help Antonio. Portia boasts about what a fine young man she will make. She knows all the tricks of the "bragging Jacks" who lie about their success with women, she says.

Portia promises Nerissa that once they are in their coach on the road to Venice, she will explain the rest of her plan.

ACT III, SCENE V

In the garden of Portia's house in Belmont, Launcelot is teasing Jessica, telling her that he is afraid she will be damned because her father is a Jew. Her only hope of being saved, he goes on, is that Shylock is not really her father. Jessica reminds Launcelot that she has converted to Christianity since her marriage to Lorenzo.

At the end of the scene, Jessica and Lorenzo discuss their high opinion of Portia. Their conversation seems less important for its subject than for what it shows us about the relationship between the two lovers. Whatever we may have thought of Jessica previously, this scene shows her to be warmhearted, tender and in love with her husband. Some readers feel that the playwright is showing us that Jessica has mellowed since her marriage and her exposure to the serenity of Belmont. Others feel that this scene is intended merely as a light, entertaining interlude which gives the audience a chance to catch its breath before the important business that will take place in Act IV.

ACT IV, SCENE I

LINES 1-121

The Duke of Venice is about to hold a hearing to decide whether or not Shylock can legally collect his pound of flesh from Antonio. There is no question of where the Duke's sympathies lie. Before the hearing gets under way, he tells Antonio and his friends that he has already tried, without success, to talk Shylock into showing mercy. When Shylock appears in the court, the Duke once again lectures him, declaring that Antonio's plight would win mercy even from "brassy bosoms and hearts of rough flint," from "Turks and Tartars."

Shylock, however, insists that he only wants what is legally his. His reasons for desiring Antonio's flesh may be unfair, but this is his "humor"- his whim- and he is entitled to satisfy it. Bassanio interrupts to repeat that he is willing to repay the principal of the loan several times over, but Shylock scorns the offer.

When the Duke reproves Shylock once again for not showing mercy, Shylock defends himself rather cleverly. You Christians own slaves, he says. What would you say if I urged you to let them go for the sake of showing mercy? No doubt you would say, "The slaves are ours."

Many playgoers find themselves at least partially in sympathy with Shylock at this point. After all, he is correct in drawing attention to the double standard of morality that the Duke and the other Venetian Christians live by. Would any of them be so interested in mercy if it weren't one of their own friends whose life was at stake? Perhaps not. Others point out that Shylock is resorting to a common trick for escaping blame for one's own actions. There is always evil and hypocrisy in the world, but some people never take much interest in denouncing it until they need an excuse to draw attention away from their own bad deeds. What examples of this kind of rationalization that you have encountered in your own experience can you offer?

LINES 122-250

Just when the argument seems to have reached an impasse, the Duke announces that a messenger has arrived with a letter from the learned Bellario of Padua. The messenger, who is actually Nerissa disguised as a page boy, enters and gives the letter to the Duke. Bellario's message informs the court that he is very interested in Antonio's case, but since he is too ill to come to Venice himself he has sent Balthasar, a young but very learned doctor of laws, to give an opinion on his behalf.

NOTE: There are a number of improbable coincidences in the play, beginning with Antonio's sudden run of bad luck, just when he has pledged his own body to guarantee Bassanio's loan. That the Duke just happens to have written to Doctor Bellario, Portia's cousin, for an opinion on the case is another. Most likely, Shakespeare's audiences would have accepted this particular coincidence as plausible because Padua was the site of a very famous university in Renaissance Italy. Thus, calling in a legal expert from Padua would be equivalent to getting an opinion from a Harvard Law School professor today.

While the Duke is reading the letter from Doctor Bellario, Shylock, confident of victory, is already sharpening the knife that he will use to cut out Antonio's heart. Gratiano, seeing this, accuses him of having the soul of a dog.

The young doctor of laws "Balthasar" is Portia, disguised as a young man. From the moment Portia comes on stage in this scene (usually costumed in the flowing robes of a Renaissance doctor of laws) she holds everyone's full attention. Naturally, no one recognizes her, not even her newlywed husband, Bassanio. (It's a stage tradition which we accept.)

Portia announces almost immediately that she has found nothing in Venetian law that would disallow Shylock's "strange suit." Therefore, it is up to him to show mercy. Although the Duke has already argued for mercy in his own way, Portia's speech is far more eloquent:

The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest-
It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.

In essence, Portia is saying that one does not need a reason for showing mercy. The virtue of mercy lies in its being given freely, without constraint- just as God allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike. Moreover, mercy is a blessing to the giver, not just to the person who directly benefits from it.

Portia goes on to say that mercy is an attribute of God himself. This, she points out, is fortunate, since if God's justice were not tempered by mercy none of us would ever "see salvation."

Shylock is unmoved by this argument. "I crave the law," he insists gruffly.

If that is so, Portia agrees, then there is no power in Venice that can keep him from collecting his bond!

NOTE: Shylock, overjoyed at his apparent victory, calls Portia a "Daniel." This is a reference not to the story of Daniel in the Old Testament, but to the apocryphal Old Testament "Book of Daniel" which is no longer included in many modern-day Bibles. In this book, a young woman named Susanna rejects the advances of two important men, and they seek revenge by accusing her of adultery with someone else. Daniel, a very youthful judge, cleverly proves that the accusation is a lie. Anyone who knows this particular story would have to suspect, at this point, that Shylock is celebrating too soon. Daniel's judgment, after all, saved an innocent party from becoming the victim of mean-spirited revenge. If Portia truly is a "Daniel," then Shylock is definitely in trouble.

LINES 251-344

For the moment, Portia seems about to let Shylock triumph. She orders Antonio to bare his chest for Shylock's knife. She even asks whether Shylock has a scale on hand, so that he can weigh the flesh that he cuts from Antonio's body. Shylock, completely prepared to carry out his grisly plan, proudly announces that he does have one. Then, almost as an afterthought, Portia wonders whether Shylock has a surgeon on hand to stop Antonio from bleeding to death.

Shylock is taken aback. The terms of the contract didn't say anything about a surgeon, he reminds Portia.

Will Shylock be allowed to go ahead and cut out Antonio's heart? Or does Portia have a last trick in reserve that will stop him?

The most suspenseful moment of the play has arrived. Even so, the author still takes time out for a bit of wry humor. Antonio, convinced that he is going to die, exchanges tearful farewells with his friends. In their grief, both Bassanio and Gratiano vow that they would sacrifice anything, even their beloved wives, if it could save Antonio's life. As you can imagine, neither "Balthasar" nor his "page" are particularly pleased to hear this. Both remark on how displeased the gentlemen's wives would be if they were only around to hear these remarks.

In the meantime, Portia pretends that she has discovered something in the fine print of the court papers that had escaped her notice before. "Tarry a little," she says. The agreement doesn't say anything about Shylock being entitled to Antonio's blood. Therefore, Shylock can have his pound of flesh- but only if he can take it without shedding so much as a drop of Antonio's blood!

Shylock realizes at once that he has been outwitted. He immediately begs to be allowed to take the 9000 ducats Bassanio had offered and leave. But Portia has one more surprise in store. There is a law on the books in Venice which says that it is a capital crime for any alien (which includes Shylock as a Jew) to plot against the life of a citizen. Shylock, of course, has been doing exactly that. If the Duke wishes to interpret the law literally, Shylock could be sentenced to hang.

NOTE: There are always a few readers who feel that Portia's victory in court comes a little too easily. One critic has even complained that Portia wins through a mere legal "quibble." Others contend that the Duke and even Shylock would surely have known about such a law if it existed. The latter argument may be true, although Shylock would not be the first to become careless about such details in the rush to get revenge on an enemy.

These objections overlook the reasons why most playgoers, and most readers too, enjoy court scenes. The fear of ending up in court, as the hapless victim of a lawsuit or the defendant wrongly accused, is a very common one. Many people feel that the law is really an artificial game of wits in any case. They enjoy seeing a clever advocate win the case on behalf of an endangered hero, whether or not the case is won on the basis of an argument that is a mere "quibble."

On a less literal level, we may suspect Antonio's fate in court has little to do with legal arguments. The gist of Portia's famous speech about mercy is that justice without mercy is not true justice at all. This is a philosophical and religious argument, not, strictly speaking, a legal one. By winning her case, Portia seems to confirm the belief that the law is also merciful in real life. Do you think that this is true?

LINES 345-422

Now it is Shylock's turn to beg for mercy. It is interesting to see how the other characters respond to this turnabout.

Gratiano, who prides himself on being so happy-go-lucky, gloats over Shylock's plight and suggests that he ought to go home and hang himself to save the government the price of the rope.

The Duke rules that Shylock's life will be spared, but his fortune will go half to the state and half to Antonio. The state's share, he hints, may even be reduced to a mere fine.

Antonio, in turn, adds that if the Duke will be satisfied with a fine, he will agree to keep his half of Shylock's goods in stewardship for Shylock's son-in-law Lorenzo, so that after Shylock's death he will have an inheritance. However, Antonio also adds two other stipulations: First, Shylock must agree to leave the rest of his goods in his will to Lorenzo and Jessica. Second, he must promise to convert to Christianity.

To all this, Shylock answers simply: "I am content."

NOTE: Do you believe that Shylock is being sincere? Or are these the words of a bitter, defeated man who has no other choice?

In thinking about your answer, keep in mind that Elizabethans believed that only Christians had a chance of entering heaven. So getting someone to convert, even by force, was doing him a favor. Also, we are led to think that Shylock still has plenty of money left. Certainly, if Shakespeare had wanted to stress Shylock's humiliation, he could have made his punishment much worse. At the very least, he could have made him grovel and beg for his life, but he does not. Considering what might have happened, Shylock may well have good reason to feel content.

On the other hand, if you go to see a production of The Merchant of Venice today, you will probably find that the actor playing Shylock delivers this line with a good deal of irony. Many modern readers can't help feeling that there is something wrong with a conception of mercy which is not broad enough to accommodate an adversary's right to his own religion. Also, notice that even when the Duke and Portia have invited Antonio to show mercy to Shylock, Antonio still seems to be concerned more with getting an inheritance for his friend Lorenzo than with being merciful to the moneylender. After all he has been through, Antonio is still oblivious to the possibility that he might bear some responsibility for turning Shylock against him. You will have to decide for yourself whether this seems fair within the context of the play.

LINES 423-472

After Shylock and the Duke have departed, Bassanio thanks the young lawyer and offers to reward "him" generously for saving Antonio's life. Portia refuses to take any money, but she asks Bassanio to give her his ring as a token to remember the occasion by. Bassanio doesn't know what to do. He begs the "lawyer" to accept another ring in its place. He will gladly buy the good doctor the most expensive ring in Venice. For the ring he is wearing, he says, was a present from his wife, and he has made a vow never to part with it.

Portia pretends to consider this just a lame excuse. If your wife is not a "madwoman," she says, she would understand the circumstances and forgive you.

After the "lawyer" has left, Antonio persuades Bassanio to give up the ring for his sake. Bassanio cannot bring himself to refuse his friend at this moment, so he asks Gratiano to hurry after the lawyer and deliver the ring as a gift.

ACT IV, SCENE II

Gratiano catches up with Portia and gives her the ring. Portia accepts the gift, and she asks Gratiano to take her "page boy" to Shylock's house. As they prepare to leave, Portia whispers to Nerissa that she should do her best to make Gratiano give up his ring to her.

This brief scene makes it obvious that Portia and her maid are looking forward to confronting their husbands about the rings later on.

ACT V, SCENE I

In Belmont, Lorenzo and Jessica are happily exchanging vows of love on a moonlit night. A messenger breaks in on their conversation to announce that Portia will be returning to the house before morning. No sooner does he finish speaking than Launcelot the clown brings similar news about Bassanio.

Lorenzo calls for the house musicians to come outdoors and play so that he and Jessica can enjoy their music and the moonlight while waiting for Portia and Bassanio's return. "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!" says Lorenzo:

Here we will sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

NOTE: Lorenzo's speech about music here is worth studying carefully. Not only does it contain some of the most beautiful language of the play, but it expresses the play's overall view of the importance of harmony. The harmony of music is mirrored in the sought-after harmony of social relationships. When Jessica interrupts her husband's speech to comment that music never makes her merry, Lorenzo says that this is because Jessica is a good listener. Music does not exist, he says, merely to entertain the "wild and wanton herd." At the same time, the person who has no music in him is not to be trusted. The virtue of music, in Lorenzo's opinion, is its "sweetness," its moderating influence on the extremes of human passion. (At this point, you may also recall Nerissa's earlier comment that extreme wealth, like extreme poverty, can be a cause of unhappiness. Lorenzo is going a step farther, arguing that true happiness is also found in emotional moderation, not abrupt swings of mood.)

Portia and Nerissa reach the house while the music is still playing and, characteristically, Portia has a few thoughts on the subject of music that are more wry than Lorenzo's sweet meditation. She observes that the effect of music has a good deal to do with the setting in which we hear it. When no one is around to hear him, she suggests, the crow probably sings as sweetly as the lark. Moreover, if nightingales sang by day instead of under the moonlight, no one would think their song was especially beautiful.

At first, Portia's remarks may seem to contradict Lorenzo's. Notice, though, that in her way Portia, too, is advocating balance and harmony. Beauty of any kind does not exist for its own sake, she seems to be saying. It can be enjoyed only in the appropriate setting and season.

Just as the first light of dawn breaks, Bassanio appears at the house, accompanied by Gratiano and Antonio. As you might expect, it does not take long for Portia and Nerissa to discover that their husbands are no longer wearing their rings. Bassanio and Gratiano try to explain how they had no choice but to give the rings away. However, Portia and Nerissa refuse to accept their husbands' story that the rings were given to two men. They insist indignantly that the rings were really given to women- and, of course, they are right although Bassanio and Gratiano do not realize it.

Shifting tactics, Portia next declares that if the young "doctor" who has the ring ever shows up at her house, she will be just as generous to him as Bassanio was. She'll deny him nothing. She will even sleep with him!

At this, Antonio interrupts and tries to explain that it was his fault that Bassanio gave away the ring. He talked him into parting with it.

Very well, says Portia, then give him this, and make sure he takes better care of it than the last present he had from me. The ring that Portia hands to Antonio is, naturally, the same ring that Bassanio gave her when he thought that she was Balthasar the lawyer. Bassanio recognizes the ring and is completely confused. How did Portia get it back? I got it, says Portia, by sleeping with the "doctor" Balthasar. Nerissa now chimes in and says that she spent last night in bed with Balthasar's page.

Having taken her joke to its limit, Portia at last gives in and tells Bassanio the truth. She was Balthasar, the clever doctor of laws who saved Antonio's life. Antonio is dumbfounded by this revelation. Bassanio, on his part, passes quickly from surprise to open admiration of his wife's clever resourcefulness. Instead of being miffed- as he might be at being left in ignorance of the plan- he is clearly charmed, and even more in love with Portia than he was before.

NOTE: Considering how much this play has to say about the need for loyalty in love and friendship, you might be surprised at how lightly the men take Portia and Nerissa's teasing claim to have slept with other men. Gratiano's reaction to hearing his bride say that she has already enjoyed a lover on the side is not outrage but bemusement. He complains, not that he has been betrayed, but that he has been betrayed so soon. Gratiano is even given the very last line of the play, which he turns into a dirty joke by vowing that from now on he will keep safe "Nerissa's ring"- a bawdy reference to the female genitalia. Gratiano's remarks- indeed the whole episode of the rings- reinforce the play's lighthearted mood. While we don't seriously expect these lovers to be unfaithful to each other in the future, we also sense that they will remain true out of continuing affection for each other, not because they are overly conscientious about the strictures of oaths and marriage vows.

Portia has one last piece of good news to relate. She has a letter for Antonio informing him that by some "strange accident" three of his ships, which were supposedly wrecked, have returned to port safely.

With this development, the action of the play has come full circle. The lovers are happily united, and Antonio is a wealthy man again.

Despite its lighthearted mood, this final scene is a rather unusual conclusion for a romantic comedy. While the supporting characters have found love and happiness, Antonio- the play's hero- is left alone, a temporary guest in the domestic utopia of Belmont. Antonio's fate is particularly striking if you compare the ending of The Merchant of Venice with the conclusion of other Shakespearean comedies such as Comedy of Errors, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and Twelfth Night, in which pairs of friends or siblings are neatly matched up with lovers of the opposite sex. If The Merchant of Venice followed this pattern, we would expect to find Antonio, not the lightweight Gratiano, married to Nerissa. One reason for this ending may be simply that Antonio has hardly had time to go courting. Nevertheless, one can't help but notice that Antonio, the most generous character in the play, remains the most alone. His situation adds a melancholy note to the cheerful final chord of this composition- recalling the play's theme that the greatest music is not necessarily the most light and carefree.

As a practical matter, Antonio's fate poses a problem for the directors of stage productions of the play. Some directors choose to end this scene with Portia, Bassanio, and Antonio entering Portia's house together- a grouping which emphasizes the enduring bonds of their friendship. Other directors emphasize Antonio's situation as an outsider. One recent television production concluded with the newlyweds rushing happily off to bed while Antonio stands forlornly on the doorstep of the house. If you were staging a production of The Merchant of Venice, how would you direct your actors to behave at the end of this scene?

A STEP BEYOND

THE STORY


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