Act Five: Ball Busting

The short Act Five of The Merchant of Venice (the shortest act in the play) contains but a single scene, back at the Belmont. The scene begins with Lorenzo and Jessica trading references to classical lovers (Troilus/Cressida, Pyramus/Thisby, Aeneas/Dido Medea/Jason), jokingly comparing their own relationship to others’. This conversation is interrupted by the news of the return of the newlyweds (the men–including Antonio–from Venice, the women from by the “holy crosses where she kneels and prays” [V.i.31]).

The women arrive first, followed immediately by the men. Within seconds of their reunion, Gratiano is defending himself to Nerissa’s anger over his not having the ring she gave him.

And so it begins.

Unlike the men in Love’s Labor’s Lost, however, neither Gratiano nor Bassanio lie about their predicament (remember the four lovers in the earlier play masqueraded as Russians). The women toy with their husbands, as when Nerissa says of the receiver of her ring:

The clerk will ne'er wear hair on's face that had it.

He will, an if he live to be a man.

Ay, if a woman live to be a man.

Now, by this hand, I gave it to a youth,
A kind of boy, a little scrubbed boy,
No higher than thyself

— V.i.158-163

Like all Shakespeare’s men who find themselves defending themselves against the smarter women, Gratiano doesn’t get it, even when he realizes the clerk was the same height as Nerissa. Portia is no different in her verbal maneuverings around Bassanio’s truthful relating of the facts, as she says that she would without hesitation share a bed with the judge who took the ring.

as she does, every night…

When Antonio attempts to intercede, Portia gives him a ring to give to Bassanio as a replacement.  It is, of course, the ring she took from him in Venice, and when he questions her about it, she tells him, “I had it of him. Pardon me, Bassanio, // For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (V.i.258-259). Portia finally admits to the ruse, and has even better news: “three of (Antonio’s) argosies // Are richly come to harbor suddenly” (V.i.276-277).

And everyone is happy … well, everyone but Shylock (but he wasn’t in this scene).

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