The Merchant of Venice page five Act II

We now remove to Belmont where Bassanio is about to make his choice of caskets: we can only hope he will succeed although that in itself may not solve Antonio’s problem with Shylock except that Portia is wealthy. The selection episode is preceded by a lengthy courtship section where the two romantically declare their love for each other.
Portia opens the conversation and shows herself impulsive and yet tied by the bond. Without wishing to be unmaidenly and declare her love for Bassanio, she nevertheless asks him to delay choosing so that she can enjoy his company for longer. Her speech chops and changes direction and she puts her love for him in a disclaiming parenthesis ” – but it is not love – ” whilst acknowledging that it is not hatred that prompts her. She knows she should not, by convention, be so forward and should merely think not speak and she would like to teach him how to select the correct casket were it not that her father’s will forbad this. If he fails she will wish she had told him. With intelligence tempered by the unreason of passion she claims the true lovers’ sense that they are two halves of the same one being:
One half of me is yours, the other half yours –
Mine own I would say, but if mine then yours
And so all yours.
Yet she cannot be his by desire and so wants to postpone the moment by talking at length: she is loving, passionate, full of initiative and spirit whilst remaining loyal to the bond. The function of this preamble is to promote the positive quality of romance, increase tension and make us recall that Bassanio’s fate – and therefore that of Antonio – rests on chance unless it proves a test of character.
Bassanio feels he is being tortured by the waiting (using oxymoron in courtly fashion at “happy torment”) and she wittily picks up the suggestion of his wrong-doing leading to punishment but he denies any element of sin in his love: they engage in semi-serious banter before he asks to take the test. After claiming that the casket challenge is a measure of true love, most of Portia’s next speech is an aside to the audience in which she expands on her central simile of the choosing of the wrong casket being like the death of a swan, mute when alive but able to sing just before death. Her eyes will be its stream with their tears if he fails but, using further analogies, if he wins the music she has ordered will be like the heralding of a new king or the custom of awakening a bridegroom with melody, a pertinent comparison. She moves on in this elevated, learned and romantic spirit to comparing him to Hercules rescuing Hesione, daughter of the king of Troy from a sea monster. This mode of utterance requires audience concentration and may distract us from noticing that the song is relevant and may even contain illicit clues to guide his choice. Portia’s speech ends with a rhyme and the first verse of the song itself rhymes with the word “lead”  and goes on to warn against choosing by sight and therefore by outward apppearance before referring to a death knell which would be rung by a bell made of lead. Some readers feel that Portia would not have bent the rules in this way and that Bassanio may not have been listening but we note that his first word is “So” when he declares that external show must not be trusted as though he has absorbed the message and will act on it.
His speech is structured as he lists many occasions on which: “The world is still deceived with ornament” and we might be lulled by his reasoning into thinking he is sincere, were it not for the fact that he has spent his friend’s money on accessories and risked Antonio’s life so to do. His first example is the law where a “gracious voice” might conceal evil; the second is religion where the use of a convincing text could do the same; the third is vice itself hypocritically covering itself with some virtue; the fourth is that of cowards who wear manly beards whilst having faint hearts (white livers); the fourth is the use of cosmetics to create false beauty; the fifth is that of a wig made of hair taken from the head of someone now a skeleton; the sixth is an enticing shore and a dangerous sea (relevant to Antonio); the seventh is the racist mention of a scarf covering an Indian beauty. He rejects the gold casket for those reasons and because it also led to the destruction of Midas whose food turned to gold and then the silver casket because it is the metal of coinage, the “palled and common drudge/’Tween man and man.” Here he is hypocritical himself since he has traded with someone else’s money and hopes to gain and pay off his debts by marrying Portia. In choosing the lead one he overlooks the fact that he does wants promises not threats. Portia is nearly overwhelmed with joy as all doubts, despair, fear and jealousy vanish and give way to a love that she tries to moderate lest it overcome her. The producer and actors must resolve the issue as to whether or not the romanticism of this interlude should obscure its underlying ambigous morality.
An Elizabethan lover was expected to praise the beauty of his beloved lady and Bassanio has not yet done so: the portrait of Portia enclosed in the correct casket gives him an opportunity to launch into hyperbolic and elegant language and sentiments. In extolling the picture, he pays tribute to her by claiming that, however skilled the painting, it cannot match the reality. Her eyes, lips, breath, hair, are  the subjects of his formalised eulogy: in particular her locks are compared elaborately to a spider’s web and her eyes are said to have such power that the first one painted could have dazzled both of the artist’s before he could copy the other. The caption states that he has not chosen “by the view” but we know that Portia’s appearance and wealth have been strong factors in his admiration. He then compares himself in rhyme, copying the parchment, to a victor who does not know if the applause is for him as he is still confused by success and so needs confirmation from her in his modesty and hopeful doubts.
Portia is also modest in love and wishes she were infinitely better for his sake, making a short line with “More rich” which recalls the theme of money before stressing “virtues, beauties, livings, friends.” Disarmingly she describes herself inaccurately as  “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpractised” but willing to learn being young enough and sufficiently intelligent. She is submissive in accepting his threefold control as lord, governor and king, despite her tendency to take the initiative and be highly spirited. Her position previously had three elements as mistress of the household, her servants and herself: the emphasis on the number three adds to the fairytale aspect. Finally, and most importantly, she gives all three to him along with a ring to symbolise the gift, making the ring a binding and significant emblem and the start of a sub-plot to sustain the end of the drama. Her elegance of expression with its complex reasoning, generosity and liberality are striking but they remind us that becoming wealthy was a part of Bassanio’s aim. He is rendered speechless and again feels as if he is a prince being recognised by a crowd and full of wild joy before promising that he will not give away the ring whilst alive. The hyperboles are underlined by detail and paradox such as “Expressed and not expressed.” Gratiano, never one to hold back, asks for a double wedding including himself and Nerissa, a courtship which could be made clear by the actors but is not a part of the text for reasons of clarity of outline.  Gratiano makes a moving plea as he reveals how the choice of caskets affected him also but soon switches to bawdy in the bet as to which couple will have a son first and the pun on “stake down” and we note again the stress on money even in this happy moment. He is confident and optimistic and adds a sense that the outcome of the play will be that of comedy since there is a pattern of marriages forecast.
When the contingent from Venice arrives, Jessica clearly stays in the background as Nerissa is encouraged to welcome her at line 237: perhaps she feels outside the circle. Again a commercial term is used in the word “interest” when Bassanio assumes his new, young position to welcome visitors. Lorenzo has come only because of Salerio’s persuasion which may also account for Jessica’s holding back. The moment of happiness is brief as it is reported that Antonio is not well in mind and therefore poorly in bodily health, deriving from his low spirits. Gratiano is nevertheless exuberantly cheerful, comparing their fortune to Jason’s success (see Act I scene i lines 170-172) and continuing the lexis of gold and money but Salerio announces a loss, possibly punning on “fleece/fleets.” Portia’s love for Bassanio has made her watch him carefully and notice that he has gone pale at the news in the letter: she thinks that only the death of a friend could shake his robust nature so much, making this an example of foreshadowing since the broken bond could kill Antonio. Instantly she wants to share Bassanio’s trouble as she is half of him, revealing herself to be loyal and sympathetic to him in dark times, and we sense that the mood of the play is about to change to despondency. It is an interesting question as to whether we feel that the threat of tragedy will be paramount or that it could be forestalled: the penalty of the pound of flesh seems so grotesque in the realistic setting of Venice and too dark in the fairy tale environment of Belmont that we may suspect that it cannot be a credible outcome.
Bassanio now tells of his situation with honesty and clarity, although we note that he is driven to do so and may not have volunteered the information otherwise. He recalls the moment when he told Portia that his only wealth was his noble blood which was not the entire truth. They both rated themselves as nothing but Portia is more than a zero and Bassanio less as he is in debt. To state that he was worth nothing was a boast as he is worth a negative amount. He admits that he has pledged himself to a close friend who, in turn, has bound himself to an enemy for a loan to “feed” Bassanio’s requirements, which we know have been unnecessary expensive liveries and other accessories to impress Portia. He then moves into an image of the letter as Antonio’s body with the words as open and bleeding wounds threatening to kill him. This extended simile foreshadows the possible enactment of the bond and the taking of the pound of flesh although Portia will not pick up the reference yet. Despite Antonio’s care in spreading his ventures geographically, all his ships seem to have been wrecked: we are less surprised as there have been warnings that this might occur.
Salerio confirms the disaster and reveals that Shylock would not accept the money after the date even if it were available as he insists on the bond. He is compared to an animal in his greed and urgency and he is importuning the Duke regularly to uphold the pledge, pointint out that the state of Venice will lose its reputation for just dealings if the Duke yields to Antonio’s side. This is a vital matter as the wealth of the city depends on its status as trustworthy in financial matters and Shylock reveals his cunning in stressing this. Many important people have interceded: “But none can drive him from the envious plea/Of forfeiture, of justice, and his bond.” Jessica adds that he has stated to his Jewish allies that he would prefer Antonio’s flesh to twenty times the money owed and she fears the execution will take place. Portia is quick to see the main point and Bassanio replies to her question that Antonio is his “dearest friend” and has many other virtues, being good-natured and tireless in doing favours in honourable Roman fashion.
Portia quickly ascertains the extent of the debt and then, with hyperbole, offers to find an almost infinite amount to save Antonio: money is negligible to her. She is sharp and efficient as well as humanly sympathetic and forgiving, not wishing any friend of Bassanio’s to be harmed for her sake. Firstly they are to get married and then, immediately, he will return to Venice to see what can be done as she will not consummate the marriage with an uneasy spirit. We may be suspicious that there is more afoot when she again offers to repay the debt since we know – as she does – that Shylock will not accept. This sense is confirmed when she claims that she and Nerissa will live quietly as virgins whilst her manner is so cheerful and energetic. She has also shown herself to be brisk, orderly, generous, thoughtful, practical and self-sacrificing. We feel that she will not stay in the background. Antonio’s letter shows his mood and character as loyal, affectionate, melancholy and forgiving. He does not require Bassanio’s presence before he dies but leaves the choice to him. Both the lovers agree on a swift return without sexual fulfilment or repose.
Acrt III scene iii
This dark and gloomy scene changes the atmosphere and contains a dramatic confrontation between Antonio and Shylock which presages the trial to come.  Antonio has been seeking out Shylock to ask for mercy but will discontinue this practice because it is futile. Shylock introduces, by refusing it, the concept of “mercy” which becomes a key ideal in the play. He is merciless and repeats the word “bond” throughout: he has remembered that the Christians called him a dog and now threatens to show his fangs. Thinking that the kind people are fools and “fond” [foolish], he criticises the gaoler as “naughty” [wicked] for allowing the prisoner an outing and bluntly refuses to becomes soft-hearted and yield to pleas for forgiveness. Antonio noiw reveals the main reason for Shylock’s hatred, which is that he has helped those who were indebted to Shylock and has released them from their penalties by loaning money interest-free. He can see that the Duke must uphold the bond as the state of Venice depends on absolute adherence to the law in order to maintain its prosperous status as a mercantile and financial centre of international reputation. A bleak joke emphasises his distress: that he has lost so much weight through grief that there will hardly be a pound of surplus flesh for the next day. All he wishes in his despair is to see Bassanio before he dies, showing himself to be loving and yet realistic.
Act III scene iv
Belmont represents human harmony and accord and here Lorenzo praises Portia’s self-sacrificing nature in denying herself Bassanio’s company because of her “god-like amity” [divine friendship], a key concept in the play. He also extols the character of Antonio and Portia agrees that he must be an admirable person since he is Bassanio’s friend and therefore must resemble him: in saving him she is saving herself as the wife of Bassanio, “the semblance of my soul”. She hands over the management of the household to Lorenzo and Jessica whilst she and Nerissa are absent on a supposed retreat and shows herself to be trusting, cheerful and lacking in any jealousy or resentment. When they have left she sends Balthasar to Padua to see a Doctor Bellario, bring back notes and clothes and meet her at the ferry to Venice. With energy and a sense of fun, she tells Nerissa that they will dress as young men and wagers that she will act the part better, wearing her dagger well and speaking in a breaking voice, satirising men as she does so for boasting of being loved by pining women who died of grief. She has a poor opinion of men in general but reckons, somewhat mischievously, that she can imitate “a thousand raw tricks of these bragging Jacks.” In the coach she will reveal her secret plan to Nerissa, thus keeping her purpose hidden from the audience and leaving room for tension as she has no intention of a religious retreat. She is resourceful, a good manager, full of initiative, quick-thinking and seems to love a challenge and activity.
Act III scene v
This short scene establishes that Jessica has definitely converted to Christianity and that she admires Portia greatly. It starts with some banter between Launcelot and Jessica of which Lorenzo, on entering, pretends to be jealous. Despite its lighter tone, the word-play and the jokes about how the price of pork will rise if more people eat it on becoming Christian remind us of Shylock and the seriousness of the main plot. A brief piece of clowning between Launcelot and Lorenzo leaves the latter somewhat exasperated but he and Jessica seem to have a good understanding of each other and be interested in exchanging opinions. Her speech might be interpreted as suggesting that Bassanio does not measure up to Portia’s excellent and unique qualities and that he is enjoying heavenly bliss on earth through possessing her, a happiness which he must earn by good behaviour in order to deserve her. Lorenzo teases her, a sign of a sure relationship, and she promises, laughingly to praise him over the meal. The mood is dark in places but not that of tragedy.