BB: Merchant of Venice, Act V

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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Bard Brawlers for this act are (Clockwise from top left) Melissa Myers, John dit Jack, Stephanie E.M. Coleman, Eric Jean and Daniel J. Rowe

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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BB: Merchant of Venice, Act II

The Bard Brawlers go through Act II of the Merchant of Venice.

Listen to the podcast – here -. Download the podcast.

(and, yes, you do hear Daniel J. Rowe say “Bard Ball.” The play on words still works.)

A lot of scenes in this one, but most of them pretty short.

In scene one, the action returns to Belmont. While most of the suitors have left the estate, the Prince of Morocco has remained and intends to try his luck. The conditions of the game are made explicit for our (the audience’s) benefit: if he picks the box with her picture in it, he wins the girl, the estate and all of her father’s fortune. If he fails, he has to leave and can’t ever marry. This thread is continued in scene seven where he actually makes his choice.  It works out great for Portia, so poorly for him. In scene nine the second suitor, the Prince of Aragon, makes his choice and doesn’t fare any better. The way is now clear for Bassanio’s big move.

A common complaint about the Merchant of Venice concerns the contrived nature of the three casket test to win Portia. There’s a very simple reason for that. Shakespeare adapted that aspect of the story from a tale in a collection of medieval romances called the Gesta Romanorum. This was a long collection of stories originally compiled in Latin but eventually translated into most of the vernacular languages of Europe. These stories were supposed to serve (among other things) as exemplars of morality in Christian sermons. Therefore, they were not expected to be realistic. It is very likely that many people in Shakespeare’s audience would have understood the reference to the Tale of the Three Caskets as well.

In scene two, Lancelot – Shylock’s servant – debates to himself whether he should stay and serve a bad master, or break his promise to serve Shylock and flee to a new master. He plays a trick on his father and together they ask Bassanio to allow Lancelot to serve him. He embarks with Bassanio and Gratiano for Belmont on the evening tide. (I’m not sure what happens to Old Gobbo in the end. Hmm…)

Scene three is very short but introduces us to the character of Jessica for the first time as Lancelot says his goodbyes to her.

In scene four – one of the many ‘dude scenes’ – Lorenzo explains to his buddies how he intends to steal away with Jessica and enlists their help to sneak her away from her father and Venice.

Shylock takes his leave of Jessica in scene five when he leaves to meet Antonio and some of the others for a supper he has no desire to attend. Shylock instructs Jessica to lock the doors and windows and to ignore the masquers outside. He has no idea that she intends to run away.

In scene six Salerio, Solanio and Gratiano are waiting on Lorenzo who is late to meet them. When he finally arrives, they go together to steal Jessica away. She brings a bunch of Shylock’s money with her and they run off and eventually meet up with Bassanio and company at Belmont.

Scene eight has Solanio and Salerio discussing Shylock’s reaction to Jessica elopement with Lorenzo. They describe Shylock walking through the streets screaming and crying about his loss of his daughter and of his money. Antonio and his ships are mentioned, which recalls the bond he has agreed to for Bassanio’s sake.

Some characters appearing in this act for the first time:

  • Morocco and Aragon: Princes and suitors to Portia. (She’s not a big fan for either).
  • Lancelot Gobbo: He’s Shylock’s servant, though the nature of his duties is not entirely clear. He leaves Shylock’s service in order to serve Bassanio. The dramatis personae often describes him as a clown. I can’t imagine his name is an accident but I’m not sure what the connection might be.
  • Old Gobbo: This is Lancelot’s father. He’s mostly blind and deaf and he seems to be senile as well. I suppose we’re meant to laugh at him but I can’t help feeling sorry for him.
  • Jessica: Shylock’s daughter and Lorenzo’s wife to be. She converts to Christianity and abandons her father in order to follow Lorenzo.

We’ll talk about the relationship between Lorenzo and Jessica a little more as it develops in subsequent acts (particularly in acts 4 and 5). However, I would pay very close attention to the exchanges between Lorenzo and Jessica throughout the play. Even in the very first scene where we see them together, there are signs that their relationship is off to a potentially rocky start. What’s surprising about Jessica is not only does she give at least as good as she gets in these exchanges but she also seems to suspect Lorenzo’s motives and sincerity right from the get go. I think Shakespeare’s asking us to seriously consider the costs and risks of love and trust. After all, this relationship is an invention on Shakespeare’s part and he doesn’t tend to invent lightly. I think he intends us to compare Lorenzo and Jessica to Bassanio and Portia (and maybe Antonio and Bassanio as well). Think about what Jessica is risking in running off with Lorenzo: if he should leave her, she would be left with nothing. And notice how flippant Lorenzo seems to be about the whole thing (douche!). In this respect, Jessica’s plight (and Antonio’s too, for that matter) is similar to the test with the caskets: the inscription on the lead casket says: “‘Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”

Bard on!

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