We did it! We’ve finished recording our first complete play!
Welcome to the Bard Brawl’s fifth and final episode of The Merchant of Venice.
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The final act of The Merchant of Venice has only one scene in which all of the loose ends and threads get tied up. Portia and Nerissa beat Bassanio, Gratiano and Antonio back to Belmont. After the couples are reunited, the women ask for the rings which they gave their husbands back in act III, scene 2. Awkwardness and humour ensue as the women sweat their husbands for giving away their rings to the doctor and his clerk. Portia and Nerissa even go so far as to suggest to Bassanio and Gratiano that they’ve been sleeping with these men seeing as they had the rings which the ladies gave their husbands. In the end, they give the rings back to their husbands but only after Antonio offers himself up once again as surety for the sincerity of Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s wedding vows.
After the high-stakes, high-tension court scene of act IV, act V can seem like a bit of a letdown: each of the three couples are happily reunited once again on stage, and Antonio learns, that because some of his ships have made it back to port, he’s not going to spend the rest of his days totally broke. Since we know (because we’re in on the gender-swapping disguise game) that the boys are not really in trouble, there just doesn’t seem to be that much at stake. There’s just no way Shakespeare’s going to write a comedy and not give us our three weddings, right? However, that doesn’t mean that all of these weddings have to be created equal.
Gratiano and Nerissa are clearly a doubling of the Bassanio and Portia couple, once removed from true nobility (Portia is the lady, Nerissa the maid, after all). The play seems to believe that they’ll live happily together as one big happy sitcom family (it’s hard to imagine that they would have kicked Antonio out to starve if he’d ended up penniless). But what about Lorenzo and Jessica in all of this?
I mentioned in an earlier post that Shakespeare gives us some hints that Lorenzo and Jessica’s relationship may not be all it promises to be (and that it’s probably Lorenzo’s fault). As act V opens, the couple sits outside of idyllic Belmont, gazing up at the moon. Lorenzo and Jessica compare their love story to those of other well-known literary love affairs.
Here’s the list of allusions:
- Troilus and Cressida: Troilus and Cressida fall in love during the Trojan war but Cressida is traded to Diomedes. Cressida knows she’ll have to submit in the hopes of saving her people. Troilus renounces his love for her as a result.
- Pyramus and Thisbe: Two lovers enemy household are forbidden to marry. They set up a meeting place. When Pyramus arrives he thinks that Thisbe was killed by a lion so he falls on his sword. Thisbe arrives later, sees him dead, then kills herself as well. (Sound familiar?)
- Dido and Aeneas: In his travels, Aeneas arrives in Carthage and woos Dido. Soon afterwards, he leaves Carthage never to return. Dido kills herself by throwing herself into a pyre.
- Medea and Jason: Jason promises to marry Medea in exchange for some help getting the Golden Fleece. He leaves her in the lurch and marries another woman instead.
Will Jessica and Lorenzo take their place among these infamous couples? Jessica certainly seems to think so, and she compares Lorenzo to all of these infamous lovers, casting herself as the victim of a faithless lover’s promise.
Lorenzo’s love of music (which in this context likely means poetry) is telling. He sees his relationship with Jessica in poetic terms, is inattentive to the actual words, the weight, behind these stories. (Remember that Bassanio, the successful suitor, reasons that love is purchased by the weight and passes the test because of it.) While Lorenzo can afford to make promises lightly in love, to pursue it as though it were just another beautiful story, Jessica cannot afford to be so light-hearted with her affections. When we consider the potential consequences to Jessica should Lorenzo choose to abandon her, we can understand why her last line is “I am never merry when I hear sweat music.” She – like many women before and since – has been fooled by Lorenzo’s music. She’s worried about what will happen when the music stops.
So with that, we close the book on The Merchant of Venice but feel free to leave us some comments. We’d love to hear from you.
Next week, we change gears and tackle our next play, Coriolanus.
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