The Merchant of Venice page 7

Heavy dramatic irony pervades Bassanio’s offer to trade his much-loved wife if it would save Antonio and Portia is once more alerted to the necessity of weakening the bonds of affection between the men in order to re-direct some of that love to her. Bassanio is adhering to his former sense of relationships and comradeship, possibly homosexual in essence, and he must be made to switch to a marital, completely heterosexual passion. She has shown that she does not begrudge his previous feelings for Antonio but they are inconsistent with marriage. Her taut reply: “Your wife would give you little thanks for this …” shows her to be both amused and possibly jealous but she remains in control of her emotions and the situation. A similar exchange occurs between the newly-wed Gratiano and Nerissa, their affair being a parallel to the main romance. Shylock’s comment is pertinent as he rebukes the Christian husbands for their priorities and he is right, although not as regards his daughter’s attraction to Lorenzo.
Twice Portia uses the expression: “The court awards it and the law doth give it” with a reversal of the clauses to show her full consideration of the matter. The tension is at its height as, presumably, Shylock steps forward with his sharpened knife, having again praised her for her judgement. We wonder how Antonio can escape from this mutilation and death but suspect that the tone of the play is still that of overall comedy as there have just been light-hearted comments about marital loyalty.
Her secret and skilfully enacted scheme is to apply the strict letter of the law, which Shylock has earlier called for in denying a surgeon. She points out that the bond mentions only flesh not blood and that he therefore cannot have even one drop. Her opening words: “Tarry a little” are courteous and thoughtful in tone and she may be examining the bond as she speaks to make the shock to him the greater after a certain slowness. If he sheds one drop of blood his entire wealth will be confiscated. Gratiano behaves inappropriately in his exuberant and bumptious repetitions of Shylock’s own praise of Portia: it is understandable but out of place in a solemn court of law (his expression “on the hip” ironically recalls Shylock’s words at Act I scene iii, line 40). Shylock is downcast and says he will take the triple bond money but Portia again insists, as he did, on nothing but the original bond. She adds that he must also cut off the exact amount of one pound and not the tiniest weight more or less or else his goods will be taken as well as his life: the law is precise and Shylock has agreed that it must be so. Neither is he allowed the amount of ducats first mentioned as Portia inexorably presses the limiting terms of the applied bond: he can have his pound of flesh but nothing more or less. Although we are glad to see him defeated the gloating over him is less welcome: “Thou shalt have justice more than thou desirest.”
There is irony in the situation: Shylock has insisted on the literal interpetation of the bond and is now being trapped by an even more literal interpretation. Portia, because of his praise for the law, will not let him take any money or leave the courtroom, calling into play yet another law which will cause him further loss. Her manner is formal and judicious and legal rights are on her side but it is not merciful and she has earlier pleaded for mercy on his part. We may wonder if this additional penalty is necessary and we may be uneasy at its detailed concentration on his money. The Christians have already won their case and this extra argument may seem like revenge and vindictiveness although we do realise that he would have taken Antonio’s life if that had been possible.
Portia’s formal and carefully organised speech (lines 342 ff) invokes another law of Venice against which Shylock cannot protest since he has based his case on Venetian punctiliousness. This legal requirement states that an “alien” – and we note how this places Shylock outside society – who has plotted against the life of a Venetian citizen must hand half his wealth to the intended victim whilst the other half goes to the state. The Duke also has jurisdiction over the life of the offender. She claims with reason that Shylock did plan the murder of Antonio. On stage it it necessary to decide how this speech is delivered: does Portia consult the statute book or has she learned this law; is her manner objective or jubilant, particularly when she advises him to seek mercy? Gratiano is certainly unduly triumphant when he rejoices that Shylock has not been left even the money to buy a rope to hang himself.
The Duke claims that his offer is merciful: that Shylock’s life is spared but that his wealth will be taken from him as outlined unless he shows humility in which case he will merely be fined. This does seem to show a desire to see him submissive and debased for the satisfaction of the majority and Portia insists that Antonio can have his due. Shylock is in despair as his assets mean life to him but Antonio offers a solution: Shylock will keep half his wealth without the fine provided that the other half goes ultimately to Lorenzo who eloped with Jessica. We recall that they have already stolen money and jewels. The final condition is difficult to assess for a modern audience: Antonio declares that Shylock must convert to Christianity. In doing this he may be trying to save Shylock’s soul according to his own beliefs but he is also taking from him something spiritual which is a part of the Jew’s deepest being. He must also leave everything to his newly converted daughter and her husband and the Duke agrees with this. Our feelings towrds Shylock may be ambivalent here as the shock and deprivation have made him ill as well as compliant and his monosyllabic speech may move us despite all, since the graphic vision of him sharpening his knife has now blurred. Certainly we disapprove of Gratiano’s gloating wish for a jury (sometimes grimly called godfathers) to hang him rather than christen him. Little of this shows the ideal of mercy and the removal of Shylock’s religion seems unnecessary to our modern way of thinking; the combination of money dealings and spiritual issues makes us uneasy.
At this point in the play, when Shylock has left the court, two plots which have sustained our interest are over: the casket story finished in Act III scene ii and the bond narrative is now also concluded. With the latter, the darker side of the drama is relegated to the background but another development is necessary for the remainder of Act IV and Act V. This is normally known as the ring plot and issues from Portia’s realisation that her husband needs a lesson in priorities, as does Gratiano. Even if a homeosexual element is not forefronted by the producer, there is a strong and only partially recognised relationship between these young men of Venice which does not accord with marriage and which has been demonstrated during the trial.
Firstly Portia refuses any payment for her part in Antonio’s acquittal because she is satisfied by the successful outcome: with dramatic irony she merely requests that they will recognise her when they next meet. Bassanio opens the way for the ring thread by asking her to take a souvenir from them. From Antonio she demands innocuous gloves but from her husband she requests, with the quick thinking typical of her, the ring, given to him with deep significance as an emblem of their eternal fidelity. Bassanio tries to wriggle out of the situation by saying disparagingly that the ring has no value and only the most expensive jewel in Venice would be adaquate. Portia rebukes him for his change of mind and, with further dramatic irony, Bassanio tells her of its importance. Portia mischievously claims that is a mere excuse and, again with dramatic irony, claims that his wife would understand if she knew how much the judge had deserved it. She has won a declaration of loyalty from Bassanio and leaves but we note how strong is Antonio’s influence over his friend when he persuades Bassanio to agree. There is irony in this situation as it proves how right Portia is to be wary of the influence of the strength of their future friendship and to test it by asking for the ring. Antonio actually asks Bassanio to weigh the service to him of the judge and their love against his loyalty embedded in the promise to his wife. Male bonding still predominates and Bassanio agrees to send the ring because Antonio has nearly died for him or because of previous affection.
Act IV scene ii
Portia’s first words mention Shylock briefly and legalistically but the Christians have dismissed him from the forefront of their minds and the future mode is clearly to be that of comedy: her concentration is on the delight of Lorenzo at his receipt of money, this theme never being far absent from the focus of the drama. The ring arrives and Nerissa plans to do the same trick to Gratiano, the two women looking forward with merriment to the moment when their husbands will swear they gave the rings to men and that action, presumably, they will claim was harmless. That is not the point: the rings were a solemn pledge and that has been broken.
    Act V
At the start of Act V all that remains as narrative thread is the ring plot. We also anticiate the return to Belmont of the travellers as well as a reconciliation and foretaste of their future relationships as the three marriages tie up the comedy. The first scene opens with Jessica and Lorenzo in romantic and idyllic mode competing with classical references to lovers who are appropriate to such a beautiful night: Troilus and Cressida; Pyramus and Thisbe; Dido and Aeneas; Jason and Medea. (It is worth researching these stories to see how any tragic conclusions are overlooked in favour of optimism and peacefulness.) Lines 1 to 22 are arranged as antiphon where the two speak or intone alternately and the language is elevated and lyrical until, with a switch of register, Lorenzo teases Jessica affectionately by citing themselves as traditional lovers. He jests that her love is “unthrift” (but we recall how she took money and jewels from her father particularly when we are reminded in the pun on “steal” meaning also “depart secretly”) and she responds by accusing him of false vows, which he forgives, though calling her a “little shrew [minx].” She shows how aware she is of the nature of their structured and loving jocularity by claiming that she could “out-night” him by winning the battle of allusions. They are well-suited to each other in temperament, learning and depth of emotion. Stephano interrupts this atmospheric scene, where the pace of action has paused, to bring news that Portia and Nerissa are on their way home praying at shrines as they travel. A more boisterous intervention comes from Launcelot who tells of Bassanio’s imminent arrival.
These pieces of news temporarily disturb the mood but the calm and tranquility resume as a more sustained sense of harmony is need to override the memory of Shylock and the dark conflicts in the trial scene and this is underlined by the lexis and actual music played as a means of controlling the spirit of the play as it moves towards resolution. To bring the players into the open air is an unusual request but it emphasises the connection between music, the heavens and harmony, a sense which prevails in this final act, the conflicts having been, from the point of view of these characters, resolved. The audience cannot forget the broken figure of Shylock and the racism so easily.
Two more lyrical speeches by Lorenzo continue to set the mood as he points out how fitting the melody is to the stillness, the moonlight and the night. He points out the “patens” (Holy Communion dishes or metal plates) which are the stars and planets and reminds her that the heavenly bodies produce, according to current belief, perfect harmony which cannot be heard by mortals whilst they are enclosed in “this muddy vesture of decay [earthly bodies]”. He explains her sober mood as being a mental response to music which can also control animals when they are in wild spirits and his account is striking and memorable, suggesting that human harmony is being established and will prevail. The darker elements are expunged and this idea is underlined by the classical reference to Ovid’s Metamorphoses X XI where Orpheus charmed inanimate objects by his music with its capacity to change the very nature of things. There is an implicit reference to Shylock in “The man that hath no music in himself”, who is unmoved by melody and who is therefore intent on “treasons, stratagems and spoils [plundering]”: we might agree that the Jew was vindictive but may also feel that so were the Christians and that this cannot be erased by tunes.
Portia and Nerissa on entering are also in thoughful mood as Portia compares the candle to a good deed in a wicked word (naughty was a stronger term then than now) which is visible now the moonlight has faded, comparing this to a deputy whose importance is less when the king is present. She seems to have softened and matured as she ponders how the song of the nightingale is unremarked by day and how everything needs its appropriate time and place to be appreciated. These observations and musings refer only obliquely to the plot and are mood-setters rather than pertinent comments. Classical references abound in connection with Portia to elevate her status.