The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 5, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Jessica and Lorenzo enjoy the moonlight in Belmont and compare the night—and themselves—with doomed lovers from classical myths. A messenger arrives to tell them Portia and Nerissa will return before daybreak. Shortly thereafter, Launcelot arrives to say Bassanio and Gratiano will arrive before morning as well. Jessica and Lorenzo move to prepare for their arrival.

Portia and Nerissa hesitate outside the house, enjoying the music Stephano is playing within. Portia sends Nerissa inside with instructions to the servants not to mention their absence. Lorenzo hears them talking and welcomes them home. Bassanio and Gratiano arrive shortly afterward with Antonio. Portia greets Antonio warmly as Nerissa and Gratiano argue about the lost ring. Portia scolds Gratiano for parting with Nerissa's ring, and Bassanio considers telling Portia he lost the ring defending it. Before Bassanio can tell his story, Gratiano announces Bassanio gave his ring away to the legal scholar, and Portia promises not to sleep with Bassanio again until the ring is returned. Bassanio tries to plead his case, but Portia claims to suspect "some woman had the ring." Antonio intercedes, saying he is the cause of these troubles, and apologizes. Portia gives Antonio a ring to give to Bassanio, and Bassanio sees it is the same ring as before. Portia claims she got it from the legal scholar when she slept with him. Nerissa claims to have gotten Gratiano's ring by sleeping with the scholar's clerk. Gratiano and Bassanio are dumbfounded. But Portia knows how they disguised themselves and her role in Antonio's trial. She also gives Antonio a message containing the news that three of his ships were not lost and have "richly" returned to Venice. They all enjoy the joke and make amends. Portia also gives Lorenzo Shylock's deed, which leaves Lorenzo his property after his death. The household happily retires to bed before the sun rises.

Analysis

Jessica and Lorenzo quietly enjoying one another's company, making jokes about the features their love story shares with the doomed couples of legend, provides a sharp contrast with the drama that unfolds between the other newlyweds in Belmont. Jessica and Lorenzo have overcome tremendous obstacles to be together; they have—to paraphrase the lead casket's inscription from Act 2, Scene 7—given all and hazarded everything for their love. Neither of them questions the others' loyalty, nor do they rely on symbols or objects as proof of their bond. The bond between them just is, and they value one another above all else.

Portia's marriage to Bassanio and Nerissa's to Gratiano lack the simple affection visible between Jessica and Lorenzo. Bassanio and Gratiano do have divided devotion. If their rings are meant to symbolize the bond they have with their wives, they were wrong to give those rings away to men they believed to be strangers. Bassanio gives away his ring in Act 4, Scene 1 because on some level he does value Antonio's opinion and love over Portia's. In fairness to Antonio, Bassanio knows Antonio has sacrificed more for him than Portia has, and their relationship has a much longer history. But in fact, Portia has made similar sacrifices for Bassanio and Antonio. She offered Bassanio her whole fortune to save his friend's life. She then took the risk of disguising herself as a man and lying about her identity to the Duke of Venice to ensure Antonio's safety because she did not want her husband to lose his friend. If she had been caught in this deception, she would surely have faced punishment herself. Bassanio does not understand these truths until Portia reveals her identity as the young doctor of law who saved Antonio.

Antonio also makes a final sacrifice on Bassanio's behalf. Seeing that his involvement in Bassanio's life has divided Bassanio's loyalty and created strife in his marriage, Antonio tells Portia that the lost ring is his fault. She still holds Bassanio solely responsible, as she should, but Antonio swears his soul to helping preserve the integrity of Bassanio's marriage. To him this oath is more significant than the sacrifice of his body, and it represents a profound change in the relationship between Antonio and Bassanio. They may remain friends, but Antonio will no longer be first in Bassanio's loyalty. Antonio knows the love he bears Bassanio—whether that love is romantic or not—must evolve now that his friend is married.

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