Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions . . . ? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?
Salarino and Solanio discuss the rumors that yet another of Antonio’s ships has been wrecked. They are joined by Shylock, who accuses them of having helped Jessica escape. The two Venetians proudly take credit for their role in Jessica’s elopement. Shylock curses his daughter’s rebellion, to which Salarino responds, “There is more difference between thy flesh and hers than between jet and ivory” (III.i.
Salarino and Solanio head off to meet with Antonio, just as Tubal, a friend of Shylock’s and a Jew, enters. Tubal announces that he cannot find Jessica. Shylock rants against his daughter, and he wishes her dead as he bemoans his losses. He is especially embittered when Tubal reports that Jessica has taken a ring—given to Shylock in his bachelor days by a woman named Leah, presumably Jessica’s mother—and has traded that ring for a monkey. Shylock’s spirits brighten, however, when Tubal reports that Antonio’s ships have run into trouble and that Antonio’s creditors are certain Antonio is ruined.
In Belmont, Portia begs Bassanio to delay choosing between the caskets for a day or two. If Bassanio chooses incorrectly, Portia reasons, she will lose his company. Bassanio insists that he make his choice now, to avoid prolonging the torment of living without Portia as his wife. Portia orders that music be played while her love makes his choice, and she compares Bassanio to the Greek hero and demigod Hercules. Like the suitors who have come before him, Bassanio carefully examines the three caskets and puzzles over their inscriptions. He rejects the gold casket, saying that “[t]he world is still deceived with ornament” (III.ii.
The happy couple promises one another love and devotion, and Portia gives Bassanio a ring that he must never part with, as his removal of it will signify the end of his love for her. Nerissa and Gratiano congratulate them and confess that they too have fallen in love with one another. They suggest a double wedding. Lorenzo and Jessica arrive in the midst of this rejoicing, along with Salarino, who gives a letter to Bassanio. In the letter, Antonio writes that all of his ships are lost, and that Shylock plans to collect his pound of flesh. The news provokes a fit of guilt in Bassanio, which in turn prompts Portia to offer to pay twenty times the sum. Jessica, however, worries that her father is more interested in revenge than in money. Bassanio reads out loud the letter from Antonio, who asks only for a brief reunion before he dies. Portia urges her husband to rush to his friend’s aid, and Bassanio leaves for Venice.
The passage of time in The Merchant of Venice is peculiar. In Venice, the three months that Antonio has to pay the debt go by quickly, while only days seem to pass in Belmont. Shakespeare juggles these differing chronologies by using Salarino and Solanio to fill in the missing Venetian weeks.
As Antonio’s losses mount, Shylock’s villainous plan becomes apparent. “[L]et him look to his bond,” he repeats single-mindedly (III.i.
Shylock’s dignity lapses in his scene with Tubal, who keeps his supposed friend in agony by alternating between good and bad news. Shylock lurches from glee to despair and back, one moment crying, “I thank God, I thank God!” (III.i.
Bassanio’s successful choice seems inevitable and brings the drama of the caskets to an end. Bassanio’s excellence is made clear in his ability to select the correct casket, and his choice brings the separated strands of the plot together. Portia, who is the heroine of the play—she speaks far more lines than either Antonio or Shylock—is free to bring her will and intelligence to bear on the problem of Shylock’s pound of flesh. Once Lorenzo and Jessica arrive, the three couples are together in Belmont, but the shadow of Shylock hangs over their happiness.
Critics have noticed that Jessica is ignored by Portia and the others at Belmont. Her testimony against her father may be an attempt to prove her loyalty to the Christian cause, but the coldness of Portia, Bassanio, and the others is an understandable reaction—after all, she is a Jew and the daughter of their antagonist. Lorenzo may love her, but she remains an object of suspicion for the others.