Summary: Act III, scene iii
Shylock escorts the bankrupt Antonio to prison. Antonio pleads with Shylock to listen, but Shylock refuses. Remembering the many times Antonio condemned him as a dog, Shylock advises the merchant to beware of his bite. Assured that the duke will grant him justice, Shylock insists that he will have his bond and tells the jailer not to bother speaking to him of mercy. Solanio declares that Shylock is the worst of men, and Antonio reasons that the Jew hates him for bailing out many of Shylock’s debtors. Solanio attempts to comfort Antonio by suggesting that the duke will never allow such a ridiculous contract to stand, but Antonio is not convinced. Venice, Antonio claims, is a wealthy trading city with a great reputation for upholding the law, and if the duke breaks that law, Venice’s economy may suffer. As Solanio departs, Antonio prays desperately that Bassanio will arrive to “see me pay his debt, and then I care not” (III.iii.
Summary: Act III, scene iv
Lorenzo assures Portia that Antonio is worthy of all the help she is sending him, and that if Portia only knew the depths of Antonio’s love and goodness, she would be proud of her efforts to save him. Portia replies that she has never regretted doing a good deed, and goes on to say that she could never deny help to anyone so close to her dear Bassanio. Indeed, Antonio and Bassanio are so inseparable that Portia believes saving her husband’s friend is no different than saving her own husband. She has sworn to live in prayer and contemplation until Bassanio returns to her, and announces that she and Nerissa will retire to a nearby monastery. Lorenzo and Jessica, she declares, will rule the estate in her absence.
Portia then sends her servant, Balthasar, to Padua, where he is to meet her cousin, Doctor Bellario, who will provide Balthasar with certain documents and clothing. From there, Balthasar will take the ferry to Venice, where Portia will await him. After Balthasar departs, Portia informs Nerissa that the two of them, dressed as young men, are going to pay an incognito visit to their new husbands. When Nerissa asks why, Portia dismisses the question, but promises to disclose the whole of her purpose on the coach ride to Venice.
Summary: Act III, scene v
Quoting the adage that the sins of the father shall be delivered upon the children, Launcelot says he fears for Jessica’s soul. When Jessica claims that she will be saved by her marriage to Lorenzo, Launcelot complains that the conversion of the Jews, who do not eat pork, will have disastrous consequences on the price of bacon. Lorenzo enters and chastises Launcelot for impregnating a Moorish servant. Launcelot delivers a dazzling series of puns in reply and departs to prepare for dinner. When Lorenzo asks Jessica what she thinks of Portia, she responds that the woman is without match, nearly perfect in all respects. Lorenzo jokes that he is as good a spouse as Portia, and leads them off to dinner.
Analysis: Act III, scenes iii–v
Once the play reaches Act III, scene iii, it is difficult to sympathize with Shylock. Whatever humiliations he has suffered at Antonio’s hands are repaid when he sees the Christian merchant in shackles. Antonio may have treated the moneylender badly, but Shylock’s pursuit of the pound of flesh is an exercise in naked cruelty. In this scene, Shylock’s narrowly focused rhetoric becomes monomaniacal in its obsession with the bond. “I’ll have my bond. Speak not against my bond,” (III.iii.
The institution of law comes to the forefront of the play in these scenes, and we may be tempted to view the law as a sort of necessary evil, a dogmatic set of rules that can be forced to serve the most absurd requests. In the thirty-six lines that make up Act III, scene iii, Shylock alludes to revenge in only the vaguest of terms, but repeats the word “bond” no less than six times. He also frequently invokes the concept of justice. Law is cast as the very backbone of the Venetian economy, as Antonio expresses when he makes the grim statement that “[t]he duke cannot deny the course of law. . . . / . . . / Since that the trade and profit of the city / Consisteth of all nations” (III.iii.
Shylock remains in control of events in Venice, but Portia, his antagonist, is now moving against him. Her cross-dressing is a device typical of women in Shakespeare’s comedies. Indeed, the play has already shown Jessica dressed as a boy in her escape from Shylock’s house. Dressing as a man is necessary since Portia is about to play a man’s part, appearing as member of a male profession. The demands placed upon her by her father’s will are gone, and she feels free to act and to prove herself more intelligent and capable than the men around her.
The conversation between Jessica and Launcelot in Act III, scene v, does little to advance the plot. It acts as comic relief and conveys the impression of time passing while the various characters converge on the Venetian courtroom. Jessica’s subsequent description of Portia’s perfection to her husband is odd, given how little attention Portia paid to her, but Jessica recognizes that Portia is the center of the social world that she hopes to join.
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