Although this dialogue is largely for atmosphere it does have a thematic function also as it touches on the question of appearance and reality which was vital to the choosing of the caskets and the bond with Shylock. Bassanio placed great importance on externals at the expense of his friend. The speeches draw attention not only to such matters as how the song of a nightingale might seem different by day but also stresses the relativity of all things in a punning staement: “How many things by season [by occuring at the appropriate time] seasoned [ripened] are.”
The women enter in sprightly mood with Portia joking about the sound of her own voice but she is also determined to have more fun by concealing the fact they have been absent from home whilst they appeared at the trial. The mood is set for an ending characteristic of comedy with all the darker elements forgotten along with the memory of Shylock’s despair, although the Christians may feel they have saved his soul by demanding conversion. Yet there is a more sombre note when Portai points out that it is a dark day although Bassanio instantly turns this into a hyperbolic compliment to her, claiming that she gives out such light that she could transmute night into day. She replies with a pun, saying she does not wish to be “light [unfaithful and light in weight]” which would make her husband sad, also hoping Bassanio will be equally loyal to her. Further word play occurs when the terms “bond” and “bound” are stressed as there was a bond of love as well as a legal commitment. She recognises both these in Antonio’s past behaviour and knows that she needs to be tactful about the friendship and so promises to entertain him well as her guest. As she speaks the ring plot is unfolding as Gratiano and Nerissa, at first in the background, are arguing about the gift of her ring. Dramatic irony is strong throughout all this as he gave the token to her although we did not see this piece of the action.
The quarrel starts with these minor characters for two reasons: we await Portia’s dispute with interest as it will be more effective and, because Gratiano uses vulgar language with the word “gelt [castrated]”, we may become aware that “ring” probably had an obscene extra meaning, referring to the female genitalia, thus making sense of the last words of the play which otherwise appear a weak ending. Gratiano insists he gave the ring to the clerk but the women want to tease and discommode their husbands as much as possible which is why Portia draws attention to their early quarrel. Gratiano tries to excuse himself by claiming that the ring was of no value with a trite “posy [engraved motto]” but, as Nerissa points out, this is not the point. She is probably genuinely irritated at the disparagement but makes it clear that the value of the token is its significance and the oath sworn of eternal fidelity to it and her. She presses on to tell him he should have been respectful of the vow and taunts him that he must have given it to a woman; there may be some latent jealousy here that anyone else, even a boy who was herself in disguise, could have obtained the gift from him. Gratiano’s description of the boy adds further humour as it is so unflattering and the women had hoped to cut a fine figure when in disguise: the dramatic irony when he says the clerk was Nerissa’s height is obvious. “Scrubbed” suggests the lad was stunted and “prating” claims that “he” was a chatterbox. Nerissa has to conceal wounded pride mixed with amusement.
Portia picks up eagerly the possibility of embarrasing Bassanio by reproaching Gratiano, strictures which Bassanio must find relevant to himself whilst she claims she could trust her own husband to keep any such token despite all temptation. She stresses the deep significance of the ring “A thing stuck on with oaths upon your fingers/And riveted with faith unto your flesh”, the lexis suggesting that it should be emotionally, morally and physically painful to part with such a gift. Bassanio has been listening in desperation and even wishes he could cut his hand off to excuse the loss, a comment which recalls momentarily the bond with the pound of flesh. Gratiano loses no time in denouncing Bassanio, showing little loyalty and possibly enjoying his discomfiture as well as hoping the disclosure will help to justify his own action. Portia makes the most of the situation with the same cunning that she showed in the trial by refusing in advance to accept that her husband could have given his ring away. Bassanio has to admit his wrong because the ring is not on his finger but he does confess he would lie if he could and we wonder what penalty Portia will inflict: she goes to the heart of the matter and refuses sex until she sees the ring, which is further dramatic irony as we suspect she has it on her person.
Using anaphora with the repetition at the beginning of his lines, Bassanio argues that the circumstances of his parting with the token excuse his breaking his promise: the recipient concerned; the friend involved; the penalty that would have been exacted; his unwillingness to agree to the gift and the refusal of the judge to accept anything else. She quick-wittedly and semi-jokingly imitates his speech patterns, stressing the symbolism of the ring, the worth of the giver and his honour, adding that no man would have pressed for this gift if Bassanio had defended it properly. With strong dramatic irony she agrees with Nerissa that he must have given the ring to a woman, which he did without realising. What she is emphasising is the unbreakable nature of pledges of heterosexual love and fidelity which should be as powerful as the male bonds which all the men recognise. They are novices in the world of women and matrimony and need instruction. Yet because of the trick of disguised and mistaken identity, which plays a key role in a comedy, no wrong has been done as the rings have been returned to their givers who now have a choice as to whether or not they can repeat the pledges and trust their husbands.
Bassanio is piqued by the reference to his honour and states that he gave the token to a “civil [doctor of civil law and/or courteous]” whom he at first refused, allowing him to leave in displeasure. What he omits is that Antonio intervened to beg him to send the ring after the judge and that he agreed because of the very great service to this “dear friend.” (Perhaps he is learning to avoid stressing this amicality.) His claim is that, had he not done so, he would have heaped shame upon himself and that he was prompted by courtesy and a sense that he must not appear ungrateful. He tries to make her put herself in his place at the end of a speech of painful honesty. She responds by a rather lewd threat to become as free with her sexual attentions as he has apparently been and claims she would sleep with the doctor if he came to the house and therefore she must be watched carefully. Her monosyllabic lines emphasise the dramatic irony: “Know him I shall, I am well sure of it./Lie not a night from home.” Nerissa reinforces this, always in second place to Portia’s inventiveness, saying that she would lie with the boy, to which Gratiano makes an obscene threat as to how he would harm the clerk. Somewhat feebly, Antonio regrets that these quarrels are about him but he does nothing at this point to support his friend’s arguments yet Portia kindly recognises his difficult position. Towards the end of this dialogue we wonder, as we did in the trial scene, if Portia goes a little too far in pressing beyond an established victory. Yet her tit-for-tat argument bears weight as it carries no real threat of infidelity.
Portia’s teasing becomes more overt as Bassanio tries to swear by her eyes in which, according to the romantic beliefs of the time, the lover sees himself or herself reflected: she claims this is a sign that he could be guilty of double-dealing. Bassanio vows he will be faithful to his oath in future and, at last, Antonio backs him up referring to the fact that the recipent of the ring had done a major service in ensuring that he did not lose his life and that he will pledge himself again on Bassanio’s honour. Portia now relents, relishing the joke, and produces the ring (which Bassanio recognises) sqeezing one last jibe out of the situation, saying that she obtained it from the doctor with whom she slept the previous night. Nerissa echoes her, using the word which irritated her when Gratiano employed it: “scrubbed.” The women are both full of fun at the discomfiture of their husbands and also making a serious point: loyalties have to be different in their married lives to come. Gratiano, as usual, lowers the tone by complaining that the men have been cuckolded whilst being reproached for infidelity.
Portia reprimands him for his vulgarity and realises that the joke has gone far enough, producing a letter which explains that she was the judge and Nerissa the clerk and calling upon Lorenzo to witness that they were absent from Belmont during the time of the trial. Rather unrealistically, she tells Antonio that a sealed letter states that three of his ships have landed safely with a rich cargo and refuses to tell him how she obtained the missive. This is clearly a patched up happy ending with little realism but suitable since Antonio is now an outsider to the main relationships and his case does not need to be fully credible: he has little left to say but that he is “dumb” but grateful that her news gives him “life and living”. The suggestion here is that the ships represent his life which has been restored twice, once in the courtroom and again here, both by Portia.
All that reminas now are the explanations and these will take place off stage. Bassanio and Gratiano question their women to satisfy their incredulity and Nerissa at least promises fidelity: possibly Portia holds back to drum in the lesson to her husband. The men are now enjoying the trickery and promise to sleep with the two “men.” Another piece of good news for the Chritians is the legacy of Shylock to Lorenzo and Jessica but our reactions may be ambivalent. He is not named and this serves to diminish him in our memories. Lorenzo is grateful and Portia offers to answer all questions but the lustful Gratiano wonders if the time would be better spent in bed. The fact the play ends on this lubricious note adds credence to the notion that “ring” here and on occasions elsewhere has an obscene meaning. Three happy unions stamp the play as comedy although there are many dark elements throughout.
It is impossible for us to determine how an Elizabethan audience would have responded to Shylock and the treatment of him by the Christians. The element of revenge and racism in that plot is one of the central problems in the interpretation of the play. This gives a moral ambiguity to the whole as does the issue of money which is rarely in the background despite the romantic atmosphere at times. A main theme is that of bonds, whether legal or of love and friendship, and we are left wondering which may be broken or at least bent.There is a contrast between Venice and Belmont that dominates the play although it is important not to oversimplify the difference: there is a concentration on money in both places as well as on appearance and reality and the possibility of deception. Justice and mercy are key abstract ideas and the concepts of chance and fate occur also. Money may be hoarded or spent and Shylock and Bassanio are at opposite ends of a spectrum here. Few of the characters gain our wholehearted approval although we may enjoy watching them on stage. The drama lends itself to different stresses by director and actors within adherence to the text but we should be constantly aware that there are outsiders to the societies presented.