— 5.1 —
On the avenue leading to Portia’s house, Lorenzo and Jessica were playfully talking together. They were competing in a game in which they talked about love matches that ended badly. Although they seemed to be lighthearted, they were worried. Jessica had stolen much wealth from Shylock, her father, but she and Lorenzo had squandered much — or all — of it. Possibly, they were thinking that they would act more responsibly if they could replay their recent actions.
Lorenzo said, “The moon shines brightly. On such a night as this, when the sweet wind gently kissed the trees and they made no noise, on such a night as this I think that Troilus mounted the Trojan walls and sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents, where Cressida, the woman he loved, lay that night.”
Cressida became unfaithful to Troilus.
“On such a night as this, did Thisbe fearfully walk on the dewy grass and saw the lion’s shadow before she saw the lion and ran away, dismayed,” Jessica said.
Thisbe dropped her mantle — her shawl — as she fled from the lion, which tore it. Her lover, Pyramus, found the mantle, thought that the lion had devoured Thisbe, and killed himself. Thisbe found his body, and she killed herself.
“On such a night as this, Dido stood with a willow branch — a symbol of unrequited love — in her hand upon the shore of the wild sea and beckoned her lover to return to Carthage,” Lorenzo said.
Aeneas had left Dido, Queen of Carthage, in order to go to Italy and become an important ancestor of the Roman people, as was his destiny. Dido cursed Aeneas’ descendants and then committed suicide.
“On such a night as this, Medea gathered the enchanted herbs that made old Aeson young again,” Jessica said.
Aeson was the father of Jason, whom Medea had married. Jason later was unfaithful to Medea, who murdered the children whom they had had together.
“On such a night as this, Jessica stole wealth from and stole away from her father the wealthy Jew and with a spendthrift lover ran away from Venice as far as Belmont,” Lorenzo said.
“On such a night as this, young Lorenzo swore that he loved Jessica. He stole her soul with many vows of faith, not one vow of which was true,” Jessica said.
“On such a night as this, pretty Jessica, like a little shrew, slandered her lover, and he forgave her,” Lorenzo said.
Jessica said, “I would outdo you in mentioning nights if no one would interrupt us, but I hear a man’s footsteps coming toward us.”
Stephano, one of Portia’s servants, walked up to them.
“Who is walking so fast in the silence of the night?” Lorenzo asked.
“A friend,” Stephano replied.
“A friend! What friend? What is your name, please, friend?” Lorenzo asked.
“Stephano is my name, and I bring you word that Portia, my mistress, will before the break of day arrive here at Belmont. She has been going to roadside shrines where by holy crosses she kneels and prays for a happy marriage.”
“Who is coming with her?” Lorenzo asked.
“No one except a holy hermit and Nerissa, her waiting-gentlewoman. Please tell me, has my master, Bassanio, returned yet?”
“He has not, nor have we received any message from him,” Lorenzo replied.
He added, “Jessica, let us go inside, please, and prepare a ceremony of welcome for Portia, the mistress of the house.”
Launcelot the fool appeared. Pretending not to find Lorenzo, for whom he was searching, he called “Sola! Sola! Wo ha, ho! Sola! Sola!”
“Wo ha, ho!” is a hunting cry. “Sola!” is both a hunting cry and an imitation of the sound of a post horn. Launcelot was hunting for Lorenzo to tell him that a post — an express messenger — had arrived with news for him.
“Who is shouting?” Lorenzo shouted.
“Sola!” Launcelot shouted. “Have you seen Master Lorenzo? Master Lorenzo, sola! Sola!”
“Stop shouting,” Lorenzo ordered. “I am here.”
“Sola!” Launcelot shouted. “Where are you?”
“Here I am.”
Pretending that Lorenzo was not Lorenzo, Launcelot said, “Tell him that a post has come from my master, with his horn full of good news — a cornucopia of good news. That good news is that my master will be here before morning.”
Lorenzo said to Jessica, “Sweet soul, let’s go inside, and there we will await their coming. And yet we need not go in. My friend Stephano, tell everyone in the house, please, that your mistress is at hand. Have Portia’s musicians come outside so that they can welcome her with music.”
Stephano went inside the house.
Lorenzo said to Jessica, “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep into our ears. Soft stillness and the night well suit the touches of musicians’ hands on instruments of sweet harmony.
“Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of Heaven is thickly inlaid with tiles of bright gold — planets and stars. There is not the smallest orb that you see but sings in his motion like an angel. The planets and stars produce the music of the spheres and always sing like a choir to the young-eyed angels known as the cherubim. Such harmony is in immortal souls, but while our souls are trapped in this muddy vesture of decay — this mortal human body that grossly encloses our immortal soul — we cannot hear it.”
The musicians came out of Portia’s house.
Lorenzo said to them, “Come, and wake Diana with a hymn! Diana the Moon goddess is sleeping behind clouds. With your sweetest touches on your musical instruments, wake Diana and draw her out from behind the clouds with music. And with your music, guide your mistress to her home.”
Jessica said, “I am never merry when I hear sweet music. Music puts me in a contemplative and reflective mood.”
Lorenzo replied, “The reason for that is your soul is attentive to the music. We have seen a wild and wanton herd of youthful and untrained colts racing around and making mad jumps, bellowing and neighing loudly. That is the hot nature of their excited spirit; however, if they by chance hear the sound of a trumpet, or if any other air of music touches their ears, you shall see them standing still together. Their savage eyes adopt a modest gaze because of the sweet power of music. That is the basis of truth that the poet Ovid exaggerated when he wrote that the musician Orpheus was able to make trees, stones, and floods come to him when he played. There is nothing so stubborn, hard, and full of rage that music, while it plays, cannot change that thing’s nature. The man who does not like music and is not moved by the concord of sweet sounds, is fit for treasons, plots and deeds of great violence, and destruction and acts of pillage. The impulses of his mind are as cheerless and gloomy as night and his affections are as dark as Erebus, that region of darkness in the afterlife. Let no such man be trusted. Listen to the music.”
Portia and Nerissa arrived.
Portia said to Nerissa, “That light we see is burning in my hall. How far that little candle throws its beams! So shines a good deed in an evil world.”
“When the Moon shone before it went behind a cloud, we did not see the candle,” Nerissa replied.
“The greater glory dims the lesser glory,” Portia said. “The representative of a King shines as brightly as the King until the King arrives, and then the representative of the King loses his glory. His glory vanishes the way that an inland brook flows into and vanishes into the ocean. Listen, I hear music!”
“The musicians of your house are playing,” Nerissa said.
“Nothing is good, I see, without the right context. I think that their music sounds much sweeter now than it does in the daytime.”
“The silence of the night makes the music sound much better, madam,” Nerissa said.
“The crow sings as sweetly as the lark, when no one is listening to their songs,” Portia said. “I think that the nightingale, which sings at night, if she should sing by day, when every goose is cackling, would be thought to be no better a singer than the wren. How many things are well seasoned when they occur at the proper season! When they occur at exactly the right time, their flavor is so much better and they enjoy rightful praise because they are true perfection!”
The Moon was still behind the clouds, and Portia called to the musicians, “Quiet! The Moon goddess Diana is sleeping beside her loved one, Endymion, and would not be awakened.”
The music stopped, and Lorenzo said, “That is the voice, unless I am much deceived, of Portia.”
Portia said, “He knows that it is I the same way that the blind man knows the presence of the cuckoo — by the bad voice.”
“Dear lady, welcome home,” Lorenzo said.
Portia said to him, “Nerissa and I have been praying for our husbands’ welfare. We hope that our husbands will prosper all the better for our words.
“Have they returned?”
“Madam, they are not yet here,” Lorenzo replied, “but a messenger arrived not long ago to tell us that they are coming soon.”
“Go inside, Nerissa,” Portia said. “Tell my servants that they are not to mention to our husbands that we have been absent from home. Lorenzo, and you, too, Jessica, do not tell our husbands that we have been away.”
Nerissa went inside.
A distinctive trumpet call sounded to announce that Bassanio was coming.
Lorenzo said, “Your husband is near at hand. I hear his trumpet call. We are no tattletales, madam; don’t be afraid that we will let your husbands know that you have been absent.”
Portia started to talk about the weather so that her husband would not suspect that she had just been talking about him — and about keeping something secret from him.
“This night, I think, is like ill daylight. It looks a little paler. It is like a very cloudy day during which the Sun remains hidden.”
Bassanio, Antonio, Gratiano, and their servants arrived.
Bassanio, who had overheard Portia’s last comment, said to her, “If you would walk outside at night when the Sun is hidden, we would enjoy sunlight at the same time as do the people who live on the other side of the Earth.”
“Let me give light, but let me not be light,” Portia said. “A wife with light heels raises them high in the air and parts them so she can be promiscuous. Such a light wife makes a husband heavy-hearted and full of sorrow, andI never want Bassanio to feel that way because of me. But let everything be as God wishes it to be! You are welcome home, my lord.”
Gratiano went inside the house to look for his wife.
“I thank you, madam,” Bassanio replied. “Welcome my friend. This is the man — this is Antonio — to whom I am so infinitely bound.”
“You should in all senses be much bound to him,” Portia said, “because I hear that he was much bound — in the chains of a prisoner — for you.”
Antonio said, “I have been freed from those chains and amply repaid for my distress by the friendship of your husband.”
Portia replied, “Sir, you are very welcome to our house. I intend to show you that by my actions, and therefore I will not waste time with pretty words.”
Gratiano and Jessica came out from inside the house. They were talking about Jessica’s ring, the one that Gratiano had given to the clerk of the young lawyer who had served as the judge in the trial of Antonio.
Gratiano said to Jessica, “By yonder Moon, I swear that you do me wrong. Truly, I gave your ring to the lawyer’s clerk. I wish that the clerk would be castrated since you, my love, are taking the loss of your ring so much to heart.”
“A quarrel?” Portia said. “Already! You haven’t even celebrated your wedding night! What’s the matter?”
“We are talking about a hoop of gold,” Gratiano said, “a little ring that she gave me that had a motto inscribed inside that was like one of the verses that are inscribed on the handles of knives. It said, ‘Love me, and leave me not.’”
Nerissa said, “Why are you talking about the motto and the littleness of the ring? You swore to me, when I gave the ring to you, that you would wear it until the hour you died and that it should lie with you in your grave. Even if you did not keep the ring out of respect for me, yet because of your vehement oaths you ought to have been careful and kept it. You said that you gave my ring to a judge’s clerk! As God is my judge, the clerk you gave the ring to will never grow hair on his face!”
Gratiano said, “He will, if he lives long enough to become a man.”
Nerissa replied, “That is true — if a woman lives long enough to become a man.”
Gratiano said, “Now, I swear by my hand that I gave it to a youth, a boy, a diminutive and very clean boy, no taller than yourself, the judge’s clerk, a chattering boy who begged it as a fee. I could not in my heart deny giving it to him.”’
“You are to blame,” Portia said. “I must be plain with you. You parted very lightly and easily with your wife’s first gift to you: a ring that you, with oaths, put on your finger. Therefore, the ring became riveted to your body by your oaths. I gave my love, Bassanio, a ring and made him swear never to part with it; and here he stands. I dare be sworn for him that he would not part from the ring or pluck it from his finger for all the wealth that is the world. Now, truly, Gratiano, you have unkindly given your wife a reason to grieve. If that had happened to me, I would be very angry because of it.”
Bassanio, who had also given away his ring, thought, The best thing for me to do is to cut off my left hand and swear that I lost my hand as I fought to keep the ring.
Gratiano was no help to him: “My Lord Bassanio gave his ring away to the young judge who begged for it and indeed deserved it, too, and then the boy, his clerk, who took some pains in writing, begged for my ring, and neither the young judge nor his boy would accept anything other than the rings.”
“Which ring did you give to the judge, Bassanio?” Portia asked. “Not that ring, I hope, that I gave to you.”
“If a lie could help me out here, I would lie,” Bassanio replied, “but you can see that my finger does not have your ring on it. The ring is gone.”
“And truth has departed from your false heart,” Portia said. “By Heaven, I will never sleep with you until I see the ring I gave you.”
Nerissa said to Gratiano, “And I will never sleep with you until I see the ring I gave you.”
“Sweet Portia,” Bassanio said, “if you knew to whom I gave the ring, if you knew for whom I gave the ring, if you knew why I gave the ring and if you knew how unwillingly I left behind the ring, when nothing would be accepted except the ring, you would not be so displeased.”
Portia replied, using the same form of language as her husband, “If you had known the special quality of the ring, if you had known half the worthiness of the woman who gave you the ring, and if you had known how much your own honor depended on keeping the ring, you would never have parted with the ring. What man exists who is so unreasonable — if you had been willing to have defended the ring with any zeal — that he would have lacked the courtesy to allow you to keep the ring because of its marital, emotional value? Nerissa teaches me what I should believe: She believes that Gratiano gave her ring to a woman, and I believe the same thing about you and my ring. I bet my life that you gave my ring to a woman.”
“No, by my honor, Portia, and by my soul,” Bassanio said, “no woman got your ring. I gave it to a doctor of civil law who refused to accept three thousand ducats from me and instead begged for the ring, which I would not give to him. I allowed him to go away displeased although he had saved the life of my very dear friend. What should I say, sweet lady? I had to send the ring to him; I was overcome by shame, and my courtesy and honor would not allow ingratitude to so besmear my name. Pardon me, good lady, for, by these blessed candles of the night — the stars — had you been there, I think you would have begged from me your ring so that you could give it to the worthy doctor.”
Bassanio was courteous. He did not mention Antonio, who had urged him to give the ring to the young doctor of civil law.
“Allow that doctor to never come near my house,” Portia said. “Since he has gotten the ring that I loved, and which you swore to keep, I will become as liberal — licentious, in fact — as you. I will not deny him anything I have — no, I will not deny the possession of my body or my husband’s bed. Know him I shall, I am sure of it. Do not sleep even one night away from home; watch me like Argus, the monster with the hundred eyes. If you do not watch me continually, if I am left alone, I swear, by my honor, which is still my own, I will have that doctor as my bedfellow.”
Nerissa said, “And I will have that doctor’s clerk as my bedfellow. Therefore, think carefully about whether you ever want to leave me alone.”
“Well, if you do take him as your bedfellow,” Gratiano said, “never let me catch him because if I do I will break his pen — and I will break his male appendage that can be compared to a pen.”
“I am the unhappy cause of these quarrels,” Antonio said.
“Sir, do not grieve,” Portia said to him. “You are welcome nevertheless.”
“Portia, forgive me this wrong I was forced to do,” Bassanio said, “and with these my many friends as witnesses, I swear to you by your own beautiful eyes, in which I see myself — ”
Portia interrupted, “Did everyone hear that! In my eyes he doubly sees himself. In each of my eyes, he sees a reflection of his face. Swear by your double self, my two-faced husband — that is an oath that will do you credit.”
“Please hear me out,” Bassanio said. “Pardon this fault, and by my soul I swear that I never more will break an oath that I have made to you.”
Antonio said, “I once did lend my body as surety for him to be able to gain wealth. This would have gone badly wrong except for the young doctor who now has the ring that you gave to your husband. I dare to lend myself again as surety. This time, I will lend my immortal soul, which is much more valuable than my mortal body. I will lend my immortal soul as surety that your lord will never again knowingly break an oath that he has made to you.”
“Then you shall be his surety,” Portia said.
She gave him her ring and said to Antonio, “Give this ring to my husband and tell him to take better care of it than he did the other ring.”
“Here, Lord Bassanio,” Antonio said. “Swear to keep this ring safe.”
“By Heaven,” Bassanio said, “this is the same ring that I gave to the doctor of civil law!”
“I got this ring from him,” Portia said. “Pardon me, Bassanio, for I swear by this ring that the doctor lay with me.”
Nerissa said, “And pardon me, my gentle Gratiano, because that same diminutive, very clean boy, the doctor’s clerk, did lie with me last night and gave me this ring.”
She handed him the ring that he had given away.
Gratiano said, “Why, this is similar to the mending of roads in the summer, when they do not need to be mended. You women have no need to seek lovers because your husbands are still young and vigorous. What, have we been made cuckolds before we have deserved it?”
“Don’t be gross,” Portia said. “You are all amazed and bewildered, but we can explain everything. Here is a letter; read it at your leisure. It comes from Padua, from Bellario. In this letter, you will learn that I, Portia, was the doctor of civil law and that Nerissa was my clerk: Lorenzo here will testify that we set forth as soon as you left and have just now returned — I have not yet entered my house. Antonio, you are welcome here, and I have better news in store for you than you expect. Unseal and read this letter; you shall find in it the news that three of your merchant ships, richly loaded, have come into harbor safely and suddenly. I will not tell you how I happen to have this letter.”
“I am astonished; I cannot speak,” Antonio said. He opened and began to read the letter.
“Were you really the doctor of civil law?” Bassanio asked. Did I really not recognize you?”
Gratiano asked Nerissa, “Were you really the clerk who is going to make me a cuckold?”
“Yes, but I can say that the clerk will never make you a cuckold unless he lives long enough to become a man.”
“Sweet doctor, you shall be my bedfellow,” Bassanio said to Portia. “Whenever I am absent, then I give you permission to sleep with my wife.”
Having finished reading the letter, Antonio said, “Sweet lady, you saved my life and now you have given me the news that I will have the money that I need to live. In this letter, I read for certain that my ships have safely come into harbor.”
“And now, Lorenzo,” Portia said, “my clerk has some good news for you, too.”
“That is true,” Nerissa said, “and I will freely give him the good news. Here I give to you and Jessica, from the rich Jew, a special deed of gift. After his death, all that he dies possessed of, Shylock leaves to you.”
“Fair ladies, you drop manna in front of starved people,” said Lorenzo, the spendthrift — or, perhaps, former spendthrift.
“It is almost morning,” Portia said, “and yet I am sure you are not fully satisfied with our accounts of these events. You still have questions to ask Nerissa and me. Let us go inside, and there you can interrogate us on oath. And we will faithfully and truthfully answer all questions.”
“Let us do that,” Gratiano said, “and the first question that I will ask my wife, Nerissa, is whether she would rather wait until the coming night to go to bed and consummate our marriage, or go to bed now, with two hours remaining until the break of day. But if she wants to wait, throughout the coming day I will wish that it were dark so that I could go to bed and sleep with the doctor’s clerk. Well, as long as I live I’ll worry about nothing as much as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring.”
He thought, Wedding rings are symbols. A finger goes into the ring. The finger is a phallic symbol, and the ring is a symbol of a feminine circle. I plan on taking care of Nerissa’s ring — and of her circle.
Nota Bene (The Merchant of Venice)
1) The merchant of Venice is Antonio; the Jew of Venice is Shylock.
2) In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Jews were often moneylenders because Christians believed that lending money at interest was a sin. Usury then meant lending money at interest; it now means lending money at an excessively high rate of interest. Christians no longer believe that lending money and charging interest is necessarily a sin. Indeed, it is an important part of modern economies.
Lending at interest may be permissible in certain instances; certainly we capitalist Americans believe that. I personally see lots of good reasons for lending at interest. Bonds raise money for investments. However, at times lending at interest is not ethical. For example, the lending could be done at excessively high rates of interest. Here I think of the check-cashing places that prey on the poor. The people who own the check-cashing places can end up in Hell.
However, although we Americans may believe in lending at interest, the Bible may prohibit it — at least in certain cases. For example, thou shalt not lend money at interest to your brother, especially if your brother is poor, although you may lend money at interest to strangers. Here are a few Bible passages about lending at interest:
Deuteronomy 23:19: Thou shalt not lend upon usury to thy brother; usury of money, usury of victuals, usury of any thing that is lent upon usury:
Exodus 22:25: If thou lend money to any of my people that is poor by thee, thou shalt not be to him as an usurer, neither shalt thou lay upon him usury.
Leviticus 25:35-37: And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase.
Deuteronomy 23:20: Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury: that the LORD thy God may bless thee in all that thou settest thine hand to in the land whither thou goest to possess it.
Has Shylock violated any of these commandments?
3) We really do see a lot of prejudice in this play. Portia prefers to marry someone with a light skin, and Antonio hates Jews. Portia happily marries Bassanio, and Bassanio happily marries her, but an impartial observer could very well say that Bassanio is marrying Portia for her money. The Prince of Morocco, although he is proud, has many more accomplishments than Bassanio. However, mercy is a theme of the play. We can ask why Portia would not want to marry the Prince of Morocco. If she were to marry him, she would have to move to his home in his country. By marrying Bassanio, she can probably stay in her home in Belmont. A person with a dark skin who has status high enough to marry Portia is most likely someone who lives in a country other than her own.
4) One theme of the play is the harmful effects that prejudice can have on people. It can make someone want to cut a pound of flesh from a living person. It can make someone spit on the clothing and the beard of an old man and kick him.
5) We sympathize with Shylock because he is the victim of prejudice, but he also is guilty of prejudice. He hates Antonio in part because he is a Christian, although he has some other very good reasons for hating Antonio. We ought not to sympathize with Shylock when he wants Antonio to pay the penalty that is in the contract that Antonio signed. Being the victim of prejudice can help cause someone to be prejudiced; prejudice creates more prejudice.
6) Many Christians of the time that the play is set believed that the only way to get to Heaven was through believing in Jesus Christ and therefore Jews would be damned to Hell. Because of this belief, they would regard the conversion of a Jew to Christianity — even a forced conversion — to be a good thing. Here is an important Bible verse for understanding this belief:
John 14:6: Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.
If we were to be merciful when judging Antonio, we might think that he wants to save Shylock’s soul. Of course, most people today think that a forced confession is contemptible and worthless.
Antonio does show concern for Lorenzo and Jessica’s financial security. He wants to make sure that Shylock provides for them after Shylock’s death; thus, he forces Shylock to sign the deed of gift.
Is it possible that Antonio is also concerned about Shylock’s financial security? Near the end of the play, he wishes to take half of Shylock’s wealth and invest it. No doubt that money would be invested in Antonio’s trade with other countries. Does Antonio intend to give the profit made by Shylock’s money to Shylock? Possibly. Shylock cannot make money by lending at interest since he will convert to Christianity, and so he has no way to make a living. Antonio may intend to make sure that Shylock has money on which to live. Certainly, at the end of the play, three of Antonio’s ships, richly loaded, have returned safely to the harbor of Venice, and so Antonio now has enough money to live on. Of course, we need to remember that Antonio has called Shylock names and spit on him and kicked him. Also, of course, Shylock was prepared to cut off a pound of flesh from Antonio’s living body. Antonio may have wanted half of Shylock’s wealth simply because at the time Antonio desperately needed money.
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE: A RETELLING IN PROSE
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