Jessica enjoyed being mistress of Portia’s house and her friend Lancelot Gobbo’s presence made it even more pleasant. Today he was, for some reason, being quite personal, although thinking himself funny. They sat in the garden and Lancelot was teasing her about being a Jew.
‘Yes absolutely,’ he was saying, ‘because, look here, the sins of the father are visited on their children, so, quite honestly, I fear for you.’ He got up and took a few steps then turned and faced her. ‘I’ve always spoken frankly to you and now I’m going to tell you exactly what I think about it so brace yourself: I honestly think you’re damned. There’s just one ray of hope that could do you any good and that’s not really a legitimate hope either.’
‘And what hope is that, pray?’ she said.
‘Indeed! You could partly hope that your father didn’t conceive you and that you’re not, in fact, the Jew’s daughter.’
She laughed. ‘That would indeed be an illegitimate kind of hope! So the sins of my mother would be visited upon me.’
‘Hmm,’ he said. ‘Quite frankly then, I fear you are damned by both your father and your mother. So when I reject Scylla, your father, I bump into Charydbis, your mother. Well, either way you’re doomed.’
‘I’ll be saved by my husband,’ she said. ‘He’s made me a Christian.’
‘In all honesty, he’s even more to blame,’ said Lancelot. ‘We had enough Christians already – as many who could exist side by side. This making of Christians will raise the price of pigs. If we all became pork eaters it wouldn’t be long before we wouldn’t be able to afford to cook bacon!’
‘I’ll tell my husband what you said, Lancelot,’ she said as Lorenzo came towards them. ‘Here he comes.’
‘I’ll start getting jealous of you, Lancelot, if you keep getting my wife into corners like this,’ said Lorenzo.
‘You don’t have to worry about us,’ said Jessica. ‘Lancelot and I have fallen out. He tells me flatly that there’s no mercy for me in heaven, because I’m a Jew’s daughter. And he says you’re not a good citizen because, in converting Jews to Christians, you’re raising the price of pork.’
‘It’s easier to explain that than to account for the pregnancy of that Moorish woman we’ve been hearing about,’ said Lorenzo. ‘She must be with child by you, Lancelot.’
‘It’s very strange that a virgin should be pregnant,’ said Lancelot. ‘But if she’s no better than she should be then she’s indeed worse than I took her for.’
Lorenzo and Jessica looked at each other then Lorenzo shook his head. ‘See how any idiot can play with words. The time will come when all intelligence will be silenced and conversation only take place among parrots. Go in, idiot, tell them to prepare for dinner.’
‘That’s already done, sir,’ said Lancelot. ‘They all have appetites.’
‘Good lord, what a comedian you are!’ exclaimed Lorenzo. ‘Then tell them to prepare dinner.’
‘That’s done too sir. It needs only the table cloth.’
Lorenzo pointed to Lancelot’s hat, which he had taken off when he’d encountered Jessica and which he now held in his hand. ‘Will you put that on, now?’ he said.
Lancelot affected a humble manner. ‘Oh no, sir! I know my place!’
‘Still more wordplay,’ said Lorenzo. ‘Are you trying to display the totality of your wit all in one go? If you don’t mind, try and understand a plain man with a simple request. Go to your fellow-servants. Tell them to set the table. Bring in the food. Then we will come in to dinner.’
Lancelot nodded. He put on a stupid look and repeated the instructions in the same tone but getting them confused. ‘Regarding the table, sir, we’ll bring it in. As for the food, we’ll set it, and as far as your coming in to dinner is concerned, well, sir, we’ll leave that to how you feel.’ He made an elaborate flourish with his hat, plonked it on his head and marched off.
Lorenzo and Jessica watched him, laughing. ‘He’s good with words,’ said Lorenzo. The fool has a good vocabulary. I know of several famous comedians who find themselves at a loss for words on some occasions. How are you feeling, Jessica? Come on, tell me, my love, how do you like Bassanio’s wife?’
‘More than I can say!’ exclaimed Jessica. ‘Lord Bassanio should live a virtuous life because, being blessed with this lady, he finds the joys of heaven here on earth, and if he doesn’t value that on earth then he’ll never get to heaven. Indeed, if two gods should play some heavenly game with two earthly women as their betting stakes, and Portia were one of them, there would have to be something else offered with the other. This poor, crude world doesn’t have another woman to match her.’
‘You have just such a husband in me as he has in a wife…’ began Lorenzo, teasing her.
She interrupted him with: ‘You’ll have to prove that!’
He kissed her. ‘I will in due course. First, let’s go to dinner.’
She stopped him. ‘No, let me praise you while I have the appetite for it.’
He pulled her gently. ‘No, please. Save it for table talk. Then, whatever you may say, I will be able to digest it with my dinner.’
‘Well, I’ll lay it all out in front of you,’ she said as they walked happily in to dinner.