Act 2 has nine separate scenes, most of them short — unlike the three long scenes of Act 1. It opens and closes in Belmont, but most of the scenes are in Venice. We quickly dispose of Morocco. Belmont seems a completely different world, though there are links to Venice: like the venturing Antonio, who risks everything for a big payoff, Morocco (so Portia says) must “take your chance,” and if he guesses wrong will lose everything (including the right to speak of marriage to her ever again.) It’s another big “hazard.” And Morocco says that although his skin is tawny his blood is redder than that of anybody born in the far north, and proposes oddly that they “make incision for your love.” We’ve just moments earlier heard of a pound of flesh “to be cut off.”
2.2 is by far the longest scene in the act, more than 200 lines. Much of it is devoted to the clown, Launcelot, trying to decide whether to desert his master, and his dim-sighted malapropist father. (It seems a little tedious after the more substantive scenes.) Again there is a link to Shylock, who had alluded to Jacob’s tricking of Laban. Here Launcelot, like Isaac fooling Jacob, asks the blessing of his father by turning his back. (But the parallel is not exact — Launcelot has no brother. Maybe the point is just to make fun of “Jacob.”) Launcelot deserts Shylock and joins the Bassanio group: he will turn out to be the character who holds the act together — he appears in four of the first six scenes. The second part of the scene is Bassanio and Gratiano. Gratiano wants to be Bassanio’s sidekick and Lover #2, normally in comedy somebody we sympathize with. But this scene suggests, more strongly than 1.1., that his lively manner indicates that maybe he’s not serious about anything, including love. Bassanio says he is “too wild, too rude, and bold of voice,” a “skipping spirit.” It will turn out that Lorenzo is going to be Lover #2.
Another quick scene in Venice sets up Shylock’s daughter as an enemy within his house. Do we see her, comically, as a young girl who simply and understandably wants to evade her father’s will and marry Lorenzo? (This makes her a parallel to Portia.) Or does this short scene suggest, more darkly, that she is a heartless daughter who hastily deserts her father? (Compare Launcelot’s more venal desertion.) Her readiness to convert looks ahead (though we cannot know it at the time) to the demand made of Shylock that he convert. 2.4 brings Launcelot into contact with Lorenzo-the-lover, and with his friends. Is this fun, the Shakespearean equivalent of a caper film? Or is it darker? We discover that Jessica is not only going to elope with Lorenzo, but plans to steal the gold and jewels of the “faithless Jew.” It would now seem that Jessica is the faithless one.
2.5 makes Shylock look bad: he confides to Jessica his hate for Antonio, on whom he intends to “feed.” He’s here the blocking figure who wants to lock up his daughter. “Fast bind” links this action to the “bond” from Antonio. And we now see that Shylock is playing another deceitful game: he was happy to lose Launcelot, who did not do him profitable service, and as Bassanio’s servant will hasten his new master’s “waste” of the borrowed money — which will put the Christians Bassanio and Antonio at a disadvantage in relation to Shylock.
2.6 completes Jessica’s escape from her father’s house. She carries a “casket” of jewels (which links her with Portia). She is ashamed not of stealing them, but of appearing in boy’s clothes. And she goes back to get more ducats! She is instantly described as “a gentle, and no Jew” – we can take that as part of the ongoing gentile/gentle joke, or a hint that in this play it is the Christians who are rapacious. It’s noteworthy, though, that Antonio is not part of this Rigoletto-like plot: his turning up at the end of the scene suggests that he may not be as bad as the other plotters.
We keep seeing sharp contrasts in the play, amusing moments and poetic passages along with dark sections that indicate venality and deep-seated hatred. We’re drawn to some sympathy with Shylock, maybe especially in the desertion and thieving of his daughter, at the same time we know of his desire for vengeance. None of the Venetians are left clear of animus toward Shylock, even, or especially, Antonio. And the unexplained motivations you’ve mentioned, why Antonio would turn to the hated Shylock for a loan, and why Shylock would agree to lend it, are Venetian puzzles. In this Belmont would seem a refuge, except for the dark portraits of Morocco and Aragon, who in their self-importance seem to have slipped over from Venice. But Portia rules over Belmont, and this seems to give it a saving grace, even for Bassanio, who seems to rise to the occasion. The outcome of the casket choices seem to vindicate the absent father, and Nerissa’s interpretation of him. The casket plot, threatening at first, comes to seem a repository of wisdom, even if nutty when considered in realistic terms. Belmont, for the most part, resembles the “green world” of other plays and of pastoral in general. And of course it’s the site of the early solution of the love plot, which happens, it would seem prematurely, in the middle of the play. But clearly the play has its eye on other, larger matters. With Launcelot I suspect Shakespeare had an actor he had to use — he’s frequently just “the clown” — and the comedy, including the malaprops, doesn’t seem that compelling. Lorenzo seems something of a puzzle. His running off with Jessica and her father’s jewels and ducats seems part of the dark Venetian world, but he isn’t punished and, transferred to Belmont, gets some poetic lines later in the play about music.
Act III begins with Salario and Solanio advancing the plot with their dialogue before their interaction with Shylock. As S. defines himself to them, we hear another of those self definitions that cause some measure of understanding, though perhaps not sympathy exactly. The following dialogue with Tubal leads to a moment when Shylock’s past suddenly intrudes. Tubal’s mention of a ring traded for a monkey, draws Shylock’s recognition that the ring was “my turquoise” received from his wife before their marriage. “I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys” is one of those lines you never forget. Suddenly Shylock is more than just the one who calls out about “my daughter, my ducats.” The ring does not seem valuable, but was precious to Shylock. But then to Belmont, where Portia expresses her strong sentiments for Bassanio, and he for her. Her final evocation of Hercules and Hesione is surprising, and probably something a modern director would cut, but it’s striking and poetic indication of her passionate learning. I recall that some have wondered whether the rhymes of the song, bred, head, nourishèd, were meant as a clue in their rhyming also with “lead.” Is that too arcane, or were early-modern audiences attune to such suggestiveness? In any case the words of the song do seem to warn against reliance on the eyes and fancy. And the music, as always in the plays, creates a moment of heightened emotion. In any case, Bassanio’s long speech of consideration of the caskets raises tension but leads to the right conclusion. Portia’s response (aside?) is a gift to the actor who enacts it. Bassanio’s response to the portrait is wonderfully rich and is punctuated by the invitation to kiss. Portia’s response doesn’t fool us: “an unlessoned girl, unschooled, unpracticed” is hardly what we’ve seen of her. What she says in train of this will not earn any feminist credits, but seems clearly an expression of her immediate love. I’m guessing the heightened poetry of these passages is understood to offset the hard-headedness of the Venetian world. Would objecting to them be to fall into the city’s dark world? The Gratiano/Nerissa response to Portia/Bassanio just underscores the conclusion of the love plot and almost suggests the play is over, though halfway through.
The quick turn to Antonio and his plight, will of course occupy the rest of the play. Portia’s suggestion of defacing the bond gives a sense of her extravagant generosity, but that she insists on suspending the completion of the marriage until the bond is dealt with lets us know that the marriage plot must be tied to the bond plot.
I continue to meditate on a “dark” reading of the play, and wonder if the “green world” of Belmont fully balanced the ugliness of Venice. Much depends on Portia and her poetry, as you suggest. More depends on her role in the judgment scene and how we interpret that. I will carry us up to the end of Act III, and assume that you and then I will have a lot to say about Act IV.
2.7 gives us Morocco. At first the caskets business seems like it doesn’t belong in a play about Venice, merchants, and money. But then it does. Lead is linked to “hazarding” all you have — which is in fact what Antonio does with his shipping ventures. Silver is linked to what you “deserve,” and I continue to wonder why Bassanio “deserves” Portia. (He is perhaps the least appealing of Shakespeare’s young male wooers.) Gold is linked to what all men “desire,” which in some cases is love and in other cases ducats.
In 2.8 Salerio and Solanio serve as expositors, to introduce essential information, but also as hostile reporters mocking poor Shylock, and as sympathetic friends who make note again of Antonio’s “love” for Bassanio. We hear so much about this “affection wondrous sensible” that I think we figure that there’s more than homosociality here.
In 2.9 we know in advance what’s going to happen: Aragon will make another wrong choice, and
we get some more references to hazard and desert.