Portia and Bassanio strolled in the garden of her villa, high on the hill that overlooked the blue sea. She was doing everything she could to delay the fearsome ceremony because she couldn’t bear the thought of him making the wrong choice and leaving, never to return. She stopped and took his hand.
‘Wait a while,’ she pleaded. ‘Stay a day or two before you take the gamble. If you choose wrong I’ll lose you. Therefore wait a while. Something’s telling me – although it’s not love…’ She looked away guiltily. ‘… that I don’t want to lose you.’ Then she said quickly, in a whisper: ‘although you know that hatred doesn’t send the same message.’ She looked at him again, conveying her feelings with her eyes. Then she went on. ‘But because you don’t know me well – and young women can only think their thoughts, not say them – I’d like to have you here a month or two before you make your choice.’ She stopped. ‘I could tell you which one to choose…..’ she paused. His face was expressionless. ‘… but I’m under oath not to. If you lose I’ll never be another’s and you’ll make me wish for something sinful: that I had broken my oath. Shame on your eyes!’ she exclaimed and looked away. ‘They have penetrated me and divided me in two – one half of me belongs to you: the other half is yours too. I should say it’s my own but what is mine is yours, so all of me is yours. Oh, these days owners don’t often get their rights so, though I am yours in one sense, I can’t really be. If that’s true, Fortune should go to hell for it, not me! But I’m gabbling on. It’s only to slow time down, though, to draw it out, to stretch it, and stop you from making your choice.’
Bassanio drew her down on to a garden bench and took both her hands in his. ‘Let me choose,’ he said. ‘I feel as though I’m on the rack.’
‘Being tortured, Bassanio?’ she said. ‘Confess, then, the treason that is mingled with your love.’
‘None but the ugly treason of uneasiness,’ he said, ‘which makes me afraid to enjoy my love. Snow and fire could exist more easily together than treason and my love.’
‘Yes, but I’m afraid you’re speaking from the torture rack, where men are forced to say anything.’
‘Promise me life and I’ll confess the truth,’ he said, pulling a face that suggested the pain of torture.
She laughed. ‘Well then, confess and save your life!’
‘ “Confess and love” would be the sum total of my confession. What a lovely torment, when my torturer tells me the answers that will set me free! But come, lead me to my fortune and the caskets.’
‘Go then! I am locked in one of them. If you really love me you’ll find me there.’
They walked to the villa and to the room where the caskets waited. Their servants and companions had already assembled.
‘Nerissa and the rest of you, stand aside.’ Portia gestured to the musicians. ‘Let music play while he makes his choice. Then, if he loses, he will fade away in music, like a dying swan. To make the comparison more exact, my tears will be the stream and watery deathbed for him.’ She summoned up a smile and looked around at the assembled company. ‘He may win,’ she continued. ‘And what would the music be then? It would be like the fanfare that makes loyal subjects bow at a coronation. It’s like those sweet bird sounds – the dawn chorus – that creep into the sleeping bridegroom’s ear, summoning him to his wedding. And so he goes, as securely, and with much more love in him, than Alcides did when he rescued Hesione from the sea after the Trojans had sacrificed her to appease the sea-monster. Here, I am the sacrifice. The observers in the gallery are the women of Troy, come, with tears, to see the result of the sacrifice. Go, Hercules, if you win I will have my life back. I am far far more apprehensive than you, who are making the choice are.’
Bassanio walked slowly, thoughtfully, to the caskets. Portia signalled to the musicians, who struck up with recorders and drum, and began singing:
Tell me, where is Fancy bred
In the heart or in the head?
How begot, how nourished?
It is engendered in the eyes,
With grazing fed. And Fancy dies
In the cradle where it lies.
Let us all ring Fancy’s knell:
I’ll begin it, Ding, dong, bell.
Bassanio had stopped at the lead casket. ‘Outward appearance can be misleading,’ he said.
Portia gripped Nerissa’s hand.
‘The world is always taken in by ornament,’ continued Bassanio.’ In a court of law there is no plea, however tainted or corrupt, whose evil can’t be disguised with a saintly voice. In religion there’s no heresy that some serious scholar won’t bless, and support it with the scriptures’ convincing words. There’s no vice, no matter how obvious, that doesn’t have some appearance of virtue. How many cowards, whose hearts are as false as stairs made of sand, still wear beards as manly as those of Hercules and warlike Mars, who, if you could see inside them, would reveal livers as white as milk? They grow their beards, putting on the cloak of valour to make themselves appear brave. Think about beauty and you will realise that it’s often bought by weight and, when in the form of makeup, it works miracles in that those who use it most heavily are the lightest in their morals. Moreover, those golden silken curls that blow so seductively in the breeze on the heads of supposedly beautiful women often turn out to be the hair of someone now safely buried in a tomb. And so, ornament is only the inviting shore of a most treacherous sea: the beautiful scarf veiling a doubtful beauty. To sum it up, ornament is the apparent truth that, when needed, can deceive the most astute men. And so, gaudy gold, food for Midas, I’ll have none of you. Nor you, silver, you pale common metal of coins – but you, you insignificant lead, that seems to threaten rather than promise anything, you move me more than the eloquence of gold and silver does. And this is my choice. May it bring me joy!’ He held his hand out for the lead key.
Portia gasped. All her fears were leaving her – all those doubtful thoughts, all that unjustified despair: shuddering fear and green-eyed jealousy. She fought to contain her ecstasy, to control her expressions of joy. She had to reign her excitement in. She felt overwhelmed by love’s blessing: she wanted it to be less in case it drowned her.
Bassanio was unlocking the casket. He raised the lid, reached in and lifted the contents out.
‘What do I find here? The beautiful Portia’s portrait.’ He held it up. ‘How goddess-like it is! Do these eyes move? Or are they reflecting the movement of my own? Here are lips parted with sugar breath. Only such sweetness should divide such sweet lips. Here, in her hair, the painter has been a spider, weaving a golden net to trap men’s hearts, more surely than gnats caught in webs. But her eyes! How did he see to do them? Having made one, I would think it must have blinded him and made it impossible for him to do the other one. But look. Just as my praise understates the beauty of this picture, the picture limps behind the original.’ He took a scroll out of the casket. ‘Here’s the scroll that tells me my fate.
“You that choose not by the view,
Chance as fair and choose as true:
Since this fortune falls to you,
Be content, and seek no new.
If you be well pleased with this,
And hold your fortune for your bliss,
Turn you where your lady is,
And claim her with a loving kiss.”
A wonderful scroll!’ He turned and went to Portia. ‘Beautiful lady, with your permission, I come with a letter of introduction, to give and to receive.’ He stood, wanting to kiss her but holding back, not sure of himself. ‘I’m like a competitor for a prize, thinking from the applause and cheering that the spectators have been pleased but feeling a bit disorientated, hesitating with doubt that the clapping is for him. That’s how I feel, thrice beautiful lady: exactly like that, wondering whether what I’m seeing is real: and will do so until it’s confirmed, signed and ratified by you.’
She stood up and went to him. She took both his hands. ‘You see me, Lord Bassanio, where I stand,’ she said. ‘Exactly as I am. Although I have no desire to better myself in my own regard, for your sake I wish I were sixty times better, a thousand times more beautiful, ten thousand times richer. To stand high in your estimation I would like to improve myself in virtue, beauty, wealth and friends. The truth is that I’m really not much. The sum total is an uneducated girl, untaught, inexperienced: happy in this one thing – that she is not too old to learn: even happier in that she’s not too stupid to learn, and happiest of all in that she surrenders herself to be instructed by you as her lord, master and king.’ She stretched up towards him and they kissed. ‘Myself and what is mine has now been transferred to you. Until a moment ago I was the lord of this beautiful house, master of my servants, queen of my own life, and now, right now, as from this moment, this house, these servants and I, myself, are yours – my lord’s.’ She took a ring off her finger. ‘I give them with this ring.’ She put it on his finger. ‘If you part from it – lose it or give it away – it will mean the end of your love and it will be my reason for blaming you.’
Bassanio was overwhelmed. ‘Madam,’ he said. ‘I’m speechless. Only the blood in my veins speaks. I’m in a state of such confusion, like a rapturous crowd being addressed by a beloved prince, all shouting at once. Each enthusiastic voice joins the others to make a wordless tumult of joy, expressing nothing and everything. But when this ring is separated from this finger, it will be the end of life. It will mean that Bassanio’s dead.’
Nerissa came forward to join them. Gratiano followed her.
‘My lord and lady,’ said Nerissa, ‘it’s now the turn of those who’ve stood by and seen our wishes come true to cry good joy. Good joy my lord and lady!’
Gratiano gripped his friend’s hand. ‘My lord Bassanio and my gentle lady,’ he said. ‘I wish you all the joy that you could yourselves wish for: I’m sure you don’t need my good wishes. And when you marry, I ask your permission to be married at the same time.’
Bassanio laughed. ‘With all my heart.’ He gave Gratiano a friendly punch. ‘If you can find a wife!’
Gratiano bowed exaggeratedly. ‘I thank your lordship – you’ve found me one.’ He took Nerissa’s hand ‘My eyes, my lord, are as quick as yours. You saw the mistress – I beheld the maid. You loved – I loved. I needed no more of a spur than you, my lord. Your fate depended on those three caskets – so, as it turned out, did mine, because, after wooing her till I sweated and swearing my love till my mouth was dry, at last – if promises last – I got the promise from this beautiful one here, of her love, on condition that you got the mistress.’
Portia couldn’t contain her delight. ‘Is this true, Nerissa?’
‘Madam, it is, if you’re happy with it.’
‘And you, Gratiano,’ said Bassanio, ‘ are you serious?’
‘Very serious, my lord,’ said Gratiano.
‘Our wedding celebration will be enhanced by your marriage,’ said Bassiano.
‘We’ll bet a thousand ducats we have a son first,’ said Gratiano, smiling at Nerissa.
‘What a thing to bet on,’ said Nerissa through her blushes.
‘Well we won’t win that bet if we don’t do something about it!’ said Gratiano.
There was an awkward silence and the situation was saved by the arrival of Lorenzo, Jessica and Salerio. ‘Ah, look who’s here,’ said Gratiano. ‘Lorenzo and his infidel? And what’s this? My old Venetian friend, Salerio.’
‘Lorenzo and Salerio, welcome!’exclaimed Bassanio. ‘If I can be so presumptuous, being so new here. Sweet Portia, with your permission, I welcome my friends and countrymen.’
‘So do I, my lord,’ she said. ‘They’re very welcome.’
‘I thank you, sir,’said Lorenzo, shaking Bassanio’s hand. ‘I hadn’t planned to see you here but I bumped into Salerio and he begged me to come with him, not taking no for an answer.’
‘I did, my lord,’ said Salerio, ‘and I had a good reason for doing so.’ He handed Bassanio a letter. ‘Signior Antonio sends his compliments.’
‘Before I open this letter, I beg of you, tell me how my good friend is,’ said Bassanio.
‘Not sick, my lord, unless it’s in his mind – nor well, unless in his mind. His letter there will explain it all.’
Gratiano pointed discreetly at Jessica, who was looking uncomfortable. ‘Nerissa, go and cheer that stranger up,’ he whispered. ‘Make her feel at home.’ He turned to Salerio as Nerissa went to welcome Jessica. ‘Your hand, Salerio. What’s the news from Venice? How’s that great merchant, good Antonio? I know he’ll be pleased about our success. We are the Jasons! We have won the fleece!’
‘I wish you had won the fleece that he’s lost,’ said Salerio. He took Gratiano aside.
Portia watched Bassanio’s face as he read Antonio’s letter. There had to be something very serious in its contents to drain Bassanio’s face of colour like that. A dear friend must have died. Nothing else could change the demeanour of a normal man in that way. It was getting worse as he read. She touched his arm. ‘With your permission, Bassanio,’ she said. ‘I am your other half: I will readily share half of anything this letter contains.’
He turned and looked at her with eyes welling with tears. ‘Oh dearest Portia!’ he exclaimed. ‘Here are some of the most unpleasant words ever written on paper. Gentle lady, when I first declared my love to you, I told you openly that all the wealth I had ran in my veins. I was a gentleman and told you the truth. And yet, dear lady, in rating myself at nothing you will see how much I was boasting. I should then have told you I was less than nothing because, in fact, I’ve indebted myself to a dear friend and, to supply my needs, put him in debt to his worst enemy. Here is a letter, lady. The paper is like the body of my friend, and every word written on it is a gaping wound, spilling lifeblood. But is this true, Salerio? Have all his projects failed? Not even one saved? From Tripoli? From Mexico and England: from Lisbon, Africa and India, and not one vessel escaped the dreadful touch of shipwrecking rocks?’
‘Not one, my lord. And moreover, it seems that even if he had the ready money to discharge the debt the Jew wouldn’t take it. I’ve never known any creature in human form with such a sharp appetite for destroying a man. He pesters the duke from morning till night, insisting that it’s contrary to the principle of equality before the law to deny him justice. Twenty merchants, the duke himself, and the most exalted noblemen, have all tried to reason with him but none of them can budge him from his vengeful cause of forfeiture, of justice, and his bond.’
Jessica had been listening with interest and felt the need to tell them about her inside knowledge. ‘When I lived at home I heard him swear to his countrymen, Tubal and Chus, that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh than twenty times the money he owed him,’ she said. ‘And I know, my lord, that if law, authority and power don’t do something to stop him poor Antonio’s in a lot of trouble.’
‘Is it your dear friend that’s in this trouble?’ said Portia.
Bassanio nodded sadly. ‘My dearest friend, the kindest of men, the most charitable and tireless of those who do good works. One with more Roman-like honour about him than anyone in Italy.’
‘How much does he owe the Jew?’ said Portia.
‘Three thousand ducats. Because of me.’
‘Is that all?’ Portia threw her eyes up. ‘Give him six thousand and cancel the bond. Double six thousand and then treble that before a friend of the type you’ve described will lose even a hair of his head because of Bassanio.’ She paced briefly while everyone stood watching her in silence, then she turned and faced Bassanio. ‘First, come with me to the church and make me your wife,’ she said. ‘Then go back to Venice to be with your friend because you’re not going to sleep with Portia until you have peace of mind. You’ll take enough gold to pay this petty debt twenty times over. When it’s paid you’ll bring your dear friend back here with you. In the meantime Nerissa and I will live like virgins and widows. Come on, off you go then, and because you have to leave on your wedding day, welcome your friends, show a cheerful face. Since you have cost so much I will love you accordingly. But read your friend’s letter to me.’
Bassanio read the letter: “Dear Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors are becoming cruel. My assets are few. My bond to the Jew is due, and since in paying it I have to die, all debts are cleared between you and me if only I could see you again before my death. Not withstanding, make your own decision. If your love doesn’t persuade you to come, don’t let this letter do that.”
‘Oh my love!’ exclaimed Portia. ‘Get ready and go at once!’
‘As I have your sincere permission to leave you I’ll go immediately.’ Bassanio kissed her tenderly. ‘I won’t sleep till I return.’