After Shylock leaves, the duke invites Portia, still in the disguise of a young lawyer, to dinner. Portia declines, saying that she must leave immediately for Padua. As she leaves, the duke tells Antonio to reward the young law clerk, since it was he who saved Antonio’s life. Bassanio thanks Portia, though he does not see through her disguise, and offers her the money he brought with him in order to pay off Shylock. Portia declines the gift and says that having delivered Antonio from Shylock’s clutches is payment enough. Bassanio insists that she take some token from him, and she eventually agrees. Portia asks Antonio for his gloves and Bassanio for his ring, which she herself gave Bassanio on the condition that he never part with it. Bassanio pulls his hand away, calling the ring a trifle and claiming that he will not dishonor the judge by giving him such a lowly gift. Instead, Bassanio offers to find the most valuable ring in Venice, but Portia remains firm, and demands the trifle or nothing. When Bassanio admits that the ring was a gift from his wife, who made him promise never to part with it, Portia claims that the excuse is convenient and used by many men to hold onto possessions they would rather not lose. With that, she takes her leave. Antonio urges Bassanio to let the law clerk have the ring, saying that he should value Antonio’s love and the gentleman’s worth more than his wife’s orders. Bassanio gives in and sends Gratiano to run after Portia and present her with the ring. Antonio and Bassanio then leave for Antonio’s house to plan their trip to Belmont.Read a translation of Act IV, scene i, lines 397–453 →
Meanwhile, Portia sends Nerissa to Shylock’s house to ensure that Shylock signs the deed that will leave his fortune to Lorenzo and Jessica. Portia observes that Lorenzo will be happy to have this document. Once they complete this task, the disguised women plan to leave for Belmont, which will ensure their arrival a full day before their husbands’. Gratiano enters, offers Bassanio’s ring to Portia, and invites her to dinner. Portia accepts the ring, but declines the invitation. Portia asks Gratiano to show Nerissa to Shylock’s house, and Nerissa, before leaving, tells Portia that she will likewise try to convince Gratiano to part with his ring. The plan satisfies Portia, who imagines how Gratiano and Bassanio will swear up and down that they gave their rings to men, and looks forward to embarrassing them. Nerissa turns to Gratiano and asks him to lead her to Shylock’s house.Read a translation of Act IV, scene ii →
By the end of Act IV, Shakespeare has resolved the play’s two primary plots: the casket game has delivered to Portia her rightful suitor, and the threat presented by Shylock has been eliminated. Structurally, this resolution makes The Merchant of Venice atypical of Shakespeare’s comedies, which usually feature a wedding as a means of dispelling evils from and restoring rightness to the world. Here, however, the lovers are already wed, and the aftertaste of Shylock’s trial is rather bitter, especially to modern audiences. In order to sweeten his story, returning us to the unmistakable province of comedy, Shakespeare launches a third plot involving the exchange of the rings. Perhaps Shakespeare recognized the ambivalence with which we would greet Shylock’s demise and felt the need to reassert simple joy over the dark dramas of Venice. Life in blissful Belmont depends upon it.
Many critics have noted that the character of Shylock necessitates this rather forced return to the comedic. As one of Shakespeare’s most powerful and memorable creations, Shylock looms large over the play, and though he is not seen again after exiting the court, he remains lodged in our memory. In order for the lovers to enjoy a typically unadulterated happy ending, the angry, potentially victimized specter of Shylock must first be exorcised from the stage. The ring game is Shakespeare’s means of reasserting levity. Many critics consider Shylock a character who “ran away” from the playwright. Shylock may have started out as a familiar character: a two-dimensional villain in the red fright wig that European Jews were once required to wear. However, he emerges as an extremely intelligent man who has suffered profound mistreatment. Shakespeare provides Shylock with motivation for his malice, which raises Shylock above the level of evildoing bogeyman and makes his passions, no matter how terrible, at least comprehensible. For this reason, few modern audiences cheer when the Venetian court destroys Shylock. Our response to the Jew’s demise is likely to be much more complicated and ambivalent. The lovers’ exchange of the rings helps reposition the play as a comedy.
In devising the game in which Bassanio sacrifices his wedding ring, Portia once again proves herself cleverer and more competent than any of the men with whom she shares the stage. The ring game tests the boundaries of the homoerotic relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, for Antonio claims that his friend’s love for him should “[b]e valued ‘gainst your wife’s commandment” (IV.i.447). Bassanio’s willingness to part with the ring might signal a form of infidelity to his wife, but we feel little anxiety over it. Once Shylock makes his way offstage, the mood of the play is decidedly light. In other words, boundaries are tested, but they are not crossed. As the comedy genre demands, whatever wrongs have been committed will be forgiven summarily. When, at the end of Act IV, scene ii, Portia tells Nerissa that “we shall have old swearing / That they did give the rings away to men. / But we’ll outface them, and outswear them too,” we anticipate a frolicsome display of Portia’s wit, not an untimely and costly battle of irreconcilable differences (IV.ii.15–17).