Merchant of Venice, Act 5


Back in Belmont, in a moonlit garden, where we soon hear music. It’s as if we have left venal Venice behind and all can be happily resolved. All the characters gather except for Shylock. The traditional reading, I think, is for a fully comic resolution under Portia’s direction.

But there are dissonant moments in the text, amidst the gentlest of music. Maybe Lorenzo and Jessica are just “playfully” — as the Signet editor suggests — engaging in a game, matching each other with examples of “In such a night . . . In such a night.” But these lovers in fact invoke faithless lovers (Cressida), dead lovers (Pyramus and Thisbe), forsaken lovers (Dido), murderous lovers (Medea). Faithlessness is the charge that Portia and Nerissa bring against Bassanio and Gratiano. (Then Gratiano swears by the moon — hardly a sign of constancy.) Bassanio lies when he says he was “enforced” to send the ring after the disguised Portia: the text shows plainly that Portia departed when he refused the ring, and he could have just left it there.

The ring plot is a parody of the bond plot: again Portia acts as a judge (“You were to blame . . .”) and again she refers to “forfeit” and “surety.” And she declares that there must be a penalty — no going to bed. What’s different is that we know that the men are not really promise-breakers in a serious sense (although they did violate the letter of their promises), and that the women do not really distrust them. But Antonio continues to sound like a different kind of lover: while the other lovers tease each other (even at the end), he always speaks in earnest.

The ending is over the top: several of Antonio’s ships are safe after all. So the only one punished is Shylock. Even vile Gratiano gets his undeserved reward, and he also, confoundingly, gets the last speech of the play. Why shouldn’t Portia (or Bassanio, or mopey Antonio) get the last word? Why should Gratiano get to speak at all? And his final words are another sexual innuendo! Does it hint that all of the characters (apart from the merchant and the moneylender) are frivolous and heartless?


You’ve sent me back to Act 4 for some reconsidering. Mainly the Gratiano problem. I agree that “chorus” isn’t really an adequate way to describe him and the problem he represents. Bassanio describes him early on as an uncontrolled speaker of nonsense, and his baiting of Shylock certainly follows, and nastily, from that. But Shakespeare creates a serious problem in marrying him off to Nerissa, whose witty banter with Portia should make her deserve better. And his speaking the final lines of the play compounds this. Yes, he is vile, so why is he allowed to be a sort of marital double for Bassanio? Comedic symmetry, not unusual in the comedies, seems to trump decency and character plotting here. We may feel that sometimes one has to sit down with Shakespeare and point out a mistake.

But Portia’s backsliding on mercy, which you point out, is more troubling. Her first response to Bassanio’s offer of twice, or ten times, comes of a legalistic sense that Venice cannot alter a contract. Then she tells Shylock Bassanio is offering a three times payment. But Shylock objects strongly to each offer of settling. Clearly she knows what she will finally do and allows a demonstration of Shylock’s rather bloodthirsty rigidity. And Antonio’s self sacrifice to Bassanio responds to that, as well as Bassanio’s response to Antonio. Portia’s apparent backsliding comes of a compounding of justice in the Venetian statute on contriving against a citizen. But she does call on him to ask mercy, which prompts an outburst from Gratiano. And the “mercy” of the duke is simply allowing Shylock to escape death, which is rather obliquely mentioned by Portia. The rest of his punishment/sentence seems to follow what Portia laid out. Antonio’s “mercy” resides in Shylock’s forced conversion and a “gift” at his death of his possessions to Lorenzo and the faithless daughter. Yes, not much mercy, just only allowing Shylock to live, it seems. This may be the reason for Gratiano: his nastiness allows the problems with Venetian mercy to be overshadowed. Gratiano keeps baying for Shylock’s death, but instead he’s allowed a rather thin reprieve, which stands for mercy.

So Shakespeare’s response to our objections to Gratiano might come in his need to create the appearance of mercy in relation to the Gratiano nastiness. Yes, he admits, it’s painful and not logical, but it’s good theater. “So I’ve got to get Shylock offstage quickly before anyone notices.” And as he does, he concludes the tragedy of Shylock. What’s left of course is a question how anyone can be forced to convert. Which was also very much a question for Elizabethan England.

And so, to compensate — and turn the tables on Bassanio and Gratiano — he’ll introduce the ring plot. Logically this illustrates the need to temper the rigidity of oaths with the necessary generosity of repaying a seemingly measureless benefaction. And it does, with a fair amount of sexual jokeyness about cuckoldry. And this is tempered when Portia springs her second trap, revealing the actual sex of the legal eagles. And yes, it’s a bit much to have Antonio’s argosies restored, but Portia says we can’t really know about this. This is a comedy, Shakespeare seems to insist, so Antonio needs some cheering up too. And so does Lorenzo, but Jessica is kept decently silent.

Yes, it would be better for Antonio or Bassanio, or even better for Portia, to get the last lines. But he goes for “cute” in Gratiano’s joke about consummating the marriage, which goes along with the spirit of the last act.

The contest of mythical allusions between Lorenzo and Jessica does undercut any light or hopeful sense of things with them. Then we get a rather lame reappearance of Launcelot, which must be accompanied with some silly capering. It’s hard to say what to make of the thematic insistence on moonlight and music, except to remind us that this is a comedy and we still need the ring plot to unfold.

I tend to see the last act as an assertion of the comedic spirit after the dark bond plot, to offset the tragedy of Shylock. The music too seems intended to do that.

I recall the early 2000’s film of the play with Al Pacino playing Shylock, very much his tragedy. To make it that, a good deal of Shylock’s text was cut, and fair enough as it had to evade any hint of antisemitism. I don’t recall what was done with Gratiano, but I would guess he too was much reduced. In any case it was certainly a tragedy narrowly encased in a comedy. Maybe we should follow up by seeing that film and measuring what it does with the text.


I take your point that Gratiano’s nastiness may serve to make Portia’s mercy look better. But I am still troubled by the fact that he gets off scot-free: not reproved, rewarded with Nerissa, and gets the last words.

And I agree that the resolution of the ring plot suggests that forgiveness helps us forget severe and vengeful justice.

Yes, the final act restores us to “comedy.” But only by whisking Shylock off stage and diverting our attention from him. Shakespeare could have made the final act more purely comedic. He seems to have decided to leave some bad taste in our mouths. Why not wrap things up neatly and “happily” by having Bassanio pay back the money he borrowed, demonstrating that mercy trumps justice, Belmont trumps Venice, Christian trumps Jew? Instead, Shakespeare has Portia insist on oppressive financial terms.

There’s more. Why did Shakespeare have Antonio require that Shylock convert? Couldn’t that extra mile of punishment have been left out?

Antonio is an ambiguous figure: generous, a foil to Shylock, a devoted friend, but incurably melancholy. As I have suggested, Shakespeare makes clear that Antonio is more interested in love (of Bassanio) than in money. So his comedic “reward” at the end of the play is not as rewarding as it might be for somebody else. It restores his riches, but leaves him alone. (I do not imagine he’s going to spend much time with a married Bassanio.)

Maybe “Merchant of Venice” has more in common with the darker comedies than is usually thought. Maybe it’s another “problem play.” I wonder how that dimension of the play might be brought out in the staging. Where do you put Antonio at the end of the play? Might you give the audience a glimpse of a forlorn Shylock? Do you have Portia nod in endorsement of Gratiano’s sniggering closing lines, or do you have her and Bassanio, separated from Gradiano, shaking their heads as if to say “there he goes again”?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell