Act Three: Wheel of Fortune

Act Three, Scene One of The Merchant of Venice finds us back in Venice with our “reporters” Solanio and Salarino with rumors that Antonio has lost a ship. When Shylock arrives, they insult him; in response to this, Shylock repeatedly warns them that Antonio will need to “look to his bond” (III.i.45,46,47-48). There is no doubt that Shylock means to collect his pound of flesh. And why? Because it will feed his “revenge” (III.i.50). Shylock uses the “turnabout fair play” argument in his defense, saying

If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

— III.i.63-67

A messenger from Antonio calls Salarino and Solanio away, as Tubal, one of Shylock’s friends, arrives with news of Antonio’s “ill luck” (III.i.90).

this is the midpoint, dead center, of the play… don’t think we won’t talk about THAT later in the month…

Shylock is overcome with a joy that is tempered only when he hears that his daughter has been seen spending money in Genoa. He seems more upset by the loss of the money (of which he bemoans, “I shall never see my gold again” [III.i.102-103]) than he is about the loss of his daughter. His main focus, however, remains Antonio: “I’ll plague him; I’ll torture him. I am glad on it” (III.i.107-108).

Act Three, Scene Two takes us to Portia’s house on the Belmont, where she asks Bassanio to take his time before making his casket lottery choice; she is afraid that when he chooses the wrong chest, she will lose his “company” (III.ii.3) immediately. Bassanio wants to choose, feeling tortured by the whole experience. And choose he does… the leaden chest, which–of course–contains a portrait of Portia.

Bassanio has won Portia, and she has no problem immediately subordinating herself to him:

Myself and what is mine to you and yours
Is now converted: but now I was the lord
Of this fair mansion, master of my servants,
Queen o'er myself; and even now, but now,
This house, these servants and this same myself
Are yours, my lord's.

— III.ii.166-171

As a token she gives Bassanio a ring that he says he will wear until his death.

you don’t think this will come back later as some kind of either tragic foreshadowing or wacky comic subplot, do you?

Bassanio is not the only one who has found a wife, however; his friend Gratiano (he of the rude aspect) has fallen in love with Nerissa, and she is willing to marry him, as well.

It all sounds like a great comic ending except for one thing, that whole Antonio/Shylock thing, which rears its ugly head soon enough. Salerio (a messenger, NOT to be confused with our “reporters” Solanio and Salarino) arrives with Lorenzo and Jessica… and a letter from Antonio. This letter “steals the color from Bassanio’s cheek” (III.ii.244), and he explains why: “all (Antonio’s) ventures (have) failed” (III.ii.267). This forces Bassanio to confess to Portia his financial straits and the sacrifice Antonio has made for him. Portia tells Bassanio to take her money and head to Venice and attempt to buy Antonio’s way out of the problem.

In Act Three, Scene Three, we’re back to Venice, where Shylock taunts the now jailed Antonio: “I’ll have my bond” (III.iii.4,5,12,13,17), he repeatedly tells the Merchant. When he leaves, Solanio tells Antonio that possibly the duke could overrule Shylock, but Antonio knows better. Venice, he says, is a trading town; if contracts were not upheld it would

much impeach the justice of the state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations.

— III.iii.29-31

Back in the Belmont, Portia leaves Lorenzo and Jessica in charge of her house in Act Three, Scene Four. Portia tells Lorenzo that both she and Nerissa are going to a “monastery” (III.iv.31) where they will pray until their husbands come back from Venice. This, however, is just a cover story. Her real plan is to disguise herself (and Nerissa) as men and head to Venice.

The Third Act’s fifth and final scene is set again in the Belmont, where Lancelot banters first with Jessica and then with Lorenzo; with the husband’s arrival, the banter turns bawdy, as we learn that Lancelot has gotten a Moorish servant pregnant.

ah, those wacky, horny servants…

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