The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stategems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
In moonlit Belmont, Jessica and Lorenzo compare themselves to famous lovers from classical literature, like Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, and Dido and Aeneas. The couple goes back and forth with endless declarations of love, when a messenger suddenly interrupts them. The messenger informs them that Portia will soon return from the monastery, and Lorenzo and Jessica prepare to greet the mistress of the house. Launcelot enters and announces that Bassanio will return to Belmont the next day. Lorenzo calls for music, and he and Jessica sit on a grassy bank beneath the stars. Lorenzo contemplates the music made by the movement of heavenly orbs, which mortal humans cannot hear while alive. The musicians arrive and begin to play, and Lorenzo decides that anyone who is not moved by music deserves the worst cruelties and betrayals.
Portia and Nerissa enter and hear the music before they reach the estate. Portia believes that the music is made more beautiful by the night, and the flickering candles lighting up her estate enchant her. She decides that the worth of things is determined largely by the context in which they are experienced. Lorenzo greets Portia, and she requests that he not mention her absence to her husband. Trumpets sound as Bassanio, Antonio, and Gratiano arrive. Portia greets Bassanio, who introduces her to Antonio, who reports in turn that he has been acquitted in the courts of Venice. Gratiano and Nerissa begin to argue over the ring with which he promised never to part. Nerissa chastises her husband not for hurting her feelings, but for breaking his own promise. Gratiano insists that he gave the ring to a lawyer’s clerk as a fee, and Portia criticizes him for parting with so precious a gift, saying that her own husband would never have parted with his ring. Gratiano corrects her and reveals that Bassanio has, in fact, given his ring to the lawyer who saved Antonio. Portia declares that her husband’s heart is as empty as his finger, and she promises never to visit his bed until he produces the ring.
Bassanio pleads with Portia to understand that he gave the ring to a worthy man to whom he was indebted, but Portia dismisses his reasoning, saying it is more likely that Bassanio gave the ring to another woman. Portia vows to be equally unfaithful, threatening to offer the same worthy man anything she owns, including her body or her husband’s bed. Antonio intercedes on behalf of Bassanio and Gratiano, asking the women to accept his soul should either Bassanio or Gratiano prove unfaithful again. Portia and Nerissa relent, giving each of their husbands a ring and suggesting that they exercise more care in keeping these rings. Bassanio and Gratiano recognize these as the same rings they gave to the lawyer and his clerk, and Portia and Nerissa claim that they lay with the gentlemen in order to get back the rings. Before either Bassanio or Gratiano can become too upset at being cuckolded, however, Portia reveals that she was the lawyer in Venice, and Nerissa her clerk. Antonio receives news that some of his ships have miraculously arrived in port, and Lorenzo is told that he will inherit Shylock’s fortune. The company rejoices in its collective good fortune.Read a translation of Act V, scene i →
In comparison to the preceding trial scene, Act V is decidedly lighter in tone. The play delivers the happy ending required of a comedy: the lovers are restored to their loving relationships, Antonio’s supposedly lost ships arrive miraculously in port, and no threatening presence looms in the distance to suggest that this happiness is only temporary. The idyllic quality of life in Belmont has led some critics to declare that The Merchant of Venice is a “fairy story” into which the dark and dramatic figure of Shylock trespasses. Certainly the language of the play returns to the realm of comedic romance after Shylock’s departure. Before Shylock shocks the play with his morbid reality, Salarino is free to envision a shipwreck as a lovely scattering of “spices on the stream” (I.i.33). Now that Shylock has been banished, Lorenzo imagines that the each star in the sky produces music as it moves, “choiring to the young-eyed cherubins” (V.i.61). In describing the “sweet power of music” to Jessica, Lorenzo claims that such sounds have the ability to tame even the wildest beasts (V.i.78). Thus, as the music plays on the hills of Belmont, the characters seem confident that the forces requiring taming—Shylock and his bloodlust—have been suppressed, leaving them to enjoy the “concord of sweet sounds” (V.i.83).
But if the play’s end seems reminiscent of a fairy tale, it is also likely to evoke some of the same ambivalence with which we greet Shylock’s demise. For example, Jessica and Lorenzo begin Act V by comparing themselves to a catalogue of famous lovers. They mean to place themselves in a pantheon of romantic figures whose love was so great that it inspired praise from generations of poets, but all of the lovers named—Troilus and Cressida, Pyramus and Thisbe, Dido and Aeneas, Medea and Jason—end tragically. Newlyweds should not necessarily hope to take their place in this lineup, as it promises misunderstanding, betrayal, and death.
Shakespeare spares us such tragedy, but he does load the ending with misunderstanding and betrayal, albeit in a comic form. Portia and Nerissa work their husbands into a frenzy, but they also know when to stop. As soon as Bassanio declares himself a cuckold, Portia begs him to “[s]peak not so grossly” and unveils the means by which she secured his ring (V.i.265). Thus, Bassanio and Gratiano are folded back into their wives’ good graces. The play ends with Gratiano asserting that “while I live I’ll fear no other thing / So sore as keeping safe Nerissa’s ring” (V.i.305–306). The line suggests that he will not only safeguard the band of gold his wife gave him, but will also strive to keep her sexually satisfied so that she has no reason to cuckold him. But here, too, a shadow steals over the finale of celebratory reconciliation, for we wonder if Bassanio and Gratiano have what it takes to keep up with their wives. Nowhere in the play—not even when Bassanio chooses the correct casket—do the men come close to matching Portia’s wit or cleverness. Although Shakespeare leaves these issues offstage, we cannot help but feel that dangers have not so much been expelled from the world as kept at bay. Happiness reigns in Belmont, if only for the time being. As Portia approaches her estate to find a candle burning brightly, she notes with surprise, “How far that little candle throws his beams— / So shines a good deed in a naughty world” (V.i.89–90). Here, she frames a glimmer of light, of happiness or hope, as a surprisingly beautiful but always temporary condition in a dark and dangerous world. As far as happy endings go, perhaps we can ask for little more.