The moon was full and bright. Lorenzo and Jessica sat on a garden bench, enjoying being together. ‘The moon shines bright,’ said Lorenzo. ‘On such a night as this, when the sweet wind kissed the trees so gently that they didn’t make a sound – it was such a night, I imagine – Troilus scaled the walls of Troy and sighed soulfully towards the Grecian tents, where Cressida lay asleep.’
Jessica reached up and kissed his cheek. ‘On such a night,’ she whispered, ‘Thisbe tiptoed apprehensively through the dew and, seeing the lion’s shadow before he himself appeared, fled in dismay.’
Lorenzo thought for a moment, then: ‘On such a night Dido stood on the wild coast, holding a willow wand, willing her lover to return to Carthage.’
Jessica smiled and searched her imagination. ‘On such a night Medea gathered the magic herbs that rejuvenated old Aeson.’
‘On such a night,’ said Lorenzo, ‘Jessica stole away from the wealthy Jew, and with an extravagant love, ran far away from Venice, to Belmont.’
‘On such a night,’ said Jessica, ‘young Lorenzo swore he loved her completely, winning her soul with many vows of faith.’ She paused. ‘And not one of them true!’ She gripped his hand tightly.
‘On such a night, pretty Jessica slandered her lover, like a little shrew. And he forgave her.’
Jessica turned her head to listen. ‘I would out-night you if we weren’t interrupted. But listen, I can hear footsteps.’
Lorenzo got up. ‘Who’s that running around here in the silence of the night?’ he called.
A voice came from another part of the garden. ‘A friend.’
‘A friend?’ Lorenzo still couldn’t see him. ‘What friend? Your name, if you please!’
The young man, guided by Lorenzo’s voice, found them. ‘My name’s Stephano and I’ve come to tell you that my mistress will be here at Belmont before dawn. She’s been stopping at every holy cross, where she kneels and prays for a happy marriage.’
‘Who’s coming with her?’ said Lorenzo.
‘Only a holy hermit and her maid. May I ask whether my master has returned yet?’
‘No. Nor have we heard from him. But let’s go in, Jessica, and prepare a formal welcome for the mistress of the house.’
Lancelot’s voice called from somewhere behind them. ‘Who’s that?’ said Lorenzo.
‘Hello?’ Lancelot’s voice again. ‘Has anyone seen Mister Lorenzo? Mis-ter Lor-en-zo! Hello.Hello!’
‘Stop shouting, man, I’m here,’
‘Hello? Hello? Where? Where?’
‘Tell him a messenger has arrived from my master with his bag full of good news! My master will be here before morning!’
‘My love,’ said Lorenzo, ‘let’s go in and prepare for their arrival. But yet, why go in? My friend, Stephano, please go and tell the servants that your mistress is coming, and send the musicians out.’
They were alone again.
‘How sweetly the moonlight falls on this flowerbed,’ said Lorenzo. ‘We’ll sit here and let the sound of music fall sweetly on our ears. The beauty of harmony is suited to stillness and the night. Sit down, Jessica. See how the dark sky is inlaid with patterns of bright gold. Even the smallest sphere that you can see sings like an angel in its movement, forever harmonising for the keen-eyed cherubim. Such harmony is natural to the immortal souls of angels, but as long as we are shut into these rude earthly decaying bodies we can’t hear it.’
The musicians were coming towards them.
‘Come on,’ called Lorenzo. ‘Wake Diana with a hymn! Reach your mistress’ ear with sweet strains to draw her home with music.’
‘Sweet music makes me sad,’ said Jessica.
‘That’s because your mind is engaged by it,’ said Lorenzo. ‘Just look at stampeding cattle or frisking young untamed colts, bellowing and neighing loudly, which is their natural behaviour – if they happen to hear the sound of a trumpet, or if any tune reaches their ears, you’ll see them all stop and stand still, the savagery in their eyes changed to a docile gaze by the sweet power of music. That’s why the poet, Ovid, maintained that Orpheus’ music affected trees and stones and tides. There’s nothing so brutish or stubborn or angry that music won’t soften it for a while. The man who has no music in his soul, who isn’t moved by the harmony of sweet sounds, is fit only for treasons plots and trouble-making. His spiritual life is as dull as night and his character as dark as Erebus. No man like that should be trusted.’ He signalled to the musicians to begin. ‘Listen to the music.’
They held hands and listened to the sweet strains of the musicians’ art, and as the moon disappeared behind a bank of clouds, Portia and Nerissa arrived on the hill overlooking the house.
‘That light we see over there is burning in my hall,’ said Portia. ‘How far that little candle can throw its light. It’s like a good deed shining in a worthless world.’
They began walking down the hill.
‘If the moon were shining we wouldn’t see the candlelight,’ said Nerissa.
‘That’s because the greater dims the lesser ones,’ said Portia. ‘An imitator shines as brightly as a king until the king is actually there then he becomes less significant, like a small tributary when it flows into the main river. Listen! Music!’
‘It’s from your house, madam – your own musicians.’
‘Nothing is good out of context. I think it sounds much better than it does by daylight.’
‘The silence all around makes it better, madam.’
They walked on. ‘The crow sings as sweetly as the lark when no-one’s around,’ observed Portia. ‘If the nightingale were to sing in the daytime, when every goose is cackling, it would be thought no better as a musician than the wren. There are so many things that appeal because they are seen in their right context.’
They arrived at the gate.
‘Quiet now,’ said Portia. ‘The moon has gone behind the clouds and doesn’t look as though it’s going to emerge.’
The music came to a stop in the middle of Portia’s sentence.
‘That’s Portia’s voice if I’m not mistaken,’ said Lorenzo.
Portia and Nerissa hurried towards them. ‘He knows me,’ said Portia. ‘Just as the blind man knows the cuckoo – by its terrible voice.’
Lorenzo sprang up and went to meet them. ‘Dear lady!’ he exclaimed. ‘Welcome home!’
‘We’ve been praying for our husbands’ welfare,’ said Portia. ‘We hope they’ll be back all the sooner because of those prayers. Are they back?’
‘Not yet, madam, but there was a messenger come to announce their imminent arrival.’
‘Go in, Nerissa,’ instructed Portia. ‘Tell my servants not to say a word about our absence. Nor must you, Lorenzo, nor you, Jessica.’
Bassanio’s personal fanfare sounded from somewhere beyond the gate.
‘Your husband is nearby,’ said Lorenzo. ‘That’s his trumpet. Don’t worry, madam, we’re not tell-tales.’
The moon emerged from behind the clouds.
‘It’s like a version of daylight tonight,’ said Portia. It’s just a little paler. It’s like a day when there’s no sunshine.’
Bassanio heard her and as he approached he said: ‘We’ll have day at the same time as they do in the Antipodes if you carry on walking about at night like this.’
‘As long as I spread light without being morally light!’ she exclaimed as she rushed into his arms. ‘Because a loose wife makes an unhappy husband. May Bassanio never be that because of me. But what will be will be. Welcome home, my lord!’
‘Thank you, madam,’ said Bassanio. Welcome my friend. This is Antonio, to whom I’m eternally indebted.’
‘So you are, completely,’ she said, ‘because I understand that he was in grave debt for you.’
‘It was no more than I was prepared to pay,’ said Antonio, bowing.
‘Sir, you’re very welcome to our house,’ she said ‘I intend to show you in more than words, so I’ll cut these compliments short.’
Gratiano and Nerissa had been talking quietly together and there was a sudden outburst from Gratiano. ‘By the moon above us I swear you’re wronging me. I promise you, I gave it to the judge’s clerk. As far as I’m concerned he could lose his manhood as you take it so much to heart, my love!’
‘What!’ exclaimed Portia. ‘A quarrel already? What’s the matter?’
‘It’s about a hoop of gold, a paltry ring she gave me,’ said Gratiano. ‘It had an inscription on it, like a cutler’s verse on a knife: “Love me and never give me away.” ’
‘Why are you talking about the inscription or the value?’ said Nerissa. ‘When I gave it to you you promised me that you’d wear it till you died and that you’d take it to the grave with you. If not for my sake but because of your vehement oaths you should have been more serious and kept it. Gave it to a judge’s clerk! Never! As God’s my judge the clerk who’s got it will never have a beard!’
‘He will if he lives to be a man,’ said Gratiano.
‘Indeed, if a woman lives to be a man!’
‘I swear by this hand, I gave it to a youth!’ exclaimed Gratiano. ‘A kind of boy; a little well-scrubbed boy, no taller than you – the judge’s clerk, a chattering boy who begged me for it instead of a fee. I didn’t have the heart to refuse him.’
Bassanio watched in silence as his wife approached Gratiano. ‘You were at fault,’ she said. ‘I must be frank with you. Parting with your wife’s first gift so thoughtlessly. It was placed on your finger with vows and welded to your flesh with trust. I gave my love a ring and made him promise never to part with it, and there he stands. I would bet he would never lose it nor take it off his finger for all the world’s wealth. Now, really, Gratiano, you’ve given your wife too unkind a cause for grief. If I were her I’d be furious.’
Bassiano was worried. The best thing would be to cut his left hand off and swear he’d lost the ring defending it. And then the worst thing happened. Gratiano pointed to him: ‘My lord Bassanio gave his ring away, to the judge, who begged him for it and, I have to say, he deserved it too. Then the boy, his clerk, who had taken so much trouble over the documents, begged for mine. Neither the boy nor his master would take anything but the two rings.’
Portia turned. Her expression filled Bassanio with horror. ‘What ring did you give him, my lord? Not the one I gave you, I hope!’
There was no point in denying it. ‘If I wanted to add a lie to a mistake I’d deny it, but you can see the ring isn’t on my finger.’ He held his hand up. ‘It’s gone.’
‘Just like the faithfulness from your heart!’ she exclaimed. ‘By heaven, I won’t come anywhere near your bed until I see that ring!’
‘Sweet Portia,’ he said. ‘If you knew who I gave the ring to, If you knew who I gave the ring for, and if you could understand why I gave the ring, and how reluctantly I parted with the ring when nothing but the ring would be accepted, you would temper your anger.’
‘If you had realised the significance of the ring, or half the worth of she who gave you the ring, or understood your own obligation not to have parted with the ring then you wouldn’t have parted with the ring,’ she said. What man could be so unreasonable, so insensitive, as to insist on having something of such sentimental value? Nerissa’s right. I’d bet my life that some woman has the ring.
Bassanio tried to embrace her but she stepped back. ‘No, on my honour, madam, on my soul, no woman had it!’ he exclaimed. ‘Only a lawyer. He refused to take three thousand ducats and demanded the ring, which I refused him, and let him leave displeased. The man who had saved the life of my dear friend! What can I say, sweet lady? I was forced to send it after him: I was filled with shame and a sense of obligation. I couldn’t besmirch my honour with such ingratitude. Pardon me, good lady, but if you had been there I think you would have begged me for the ring to give to the worthy doctor.’
‘Don’t let that doctor come anywhere near my house!’ she exclaimed. ‘But since he’s got the jewel that I loved, and which you swore to keep for my sake, I’ll be as generous as you: I won’t deny him any of my possessions. No, not even my body, nor my husband’s bed. I know now that I’m going to be intimate with him. Watch me like Argus because if you don’t, if I’m left alone, by my honour – which is still mine to give – I’ll have that doctor in my bed.’
‘And I’ll have his clerk,’ said Nerissa. ‘Take care not to leave me unchaperoned.’
‘Well do it then!’ said Gratiano. ‘But don’t let me catch him because if I do I’ll destroy his pen.’
Antonio sighed. ‘I’m the unhappy subject of these quarrels.’
Portia turned quickly and reassured him. ‘Sir, don’t be troubled. You are welcome nevertheless.’
‘Portia!’ Bassanio was desperate. ‘Forgive me for offending you but it was forced on me. Here, with all these friends as witnesses, I swear to you, even by your lovely eyes, in which I see myself…’
‘Listen to that!’ she retorted. ‘In both my eyes he sees himself doubled! One in each eye. Swear by your hypocritical self. Now there’s a reliable oath!’ She turned her back on him and looked out towards the sea.
‘No! Just listen! Forgive this fault and I swear by my soul that I’ll never break a promise to you!’
Antonio put his hand on Portia’s arm. ‘I staked my body for his happiness. If it hadn’t been for the man who has your husband’s ring there would have been a disaster. Now I offer to be bound again, with my soul as the forfeit, that your husband will never again knowingly break faith with you.’
‘Then you’ll be his guarantor,’ she said. She took the ring off her finger and gave it to Antonio. ‘And tell him to look after it better than the other.’
Antonio held the ring out to Bassanio. ‘Here, Lord Bassanio. Swear to keep this ring.’
Bassanio took it. He began putting it on his finger then he stopped. ‘By heaven!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s the one I gave the doctor!’
‘I got it from him,’ said Portia. She swung round to face him. ‘Forgive me, Bassanio. The doctor slept with me in return for this ring.’
Nerissa took her glove off and displayed her ring. ‘And forgive me, my gentle Gratiano,’ she said, ‘because that same scrubbed boy, the doctor’s clerk, slept with me for this.’
‘What?’ said Gratiano. ‘This is like mending roads in summer, when they’re in good repair. Are we going to be cuckolded before we’ve deserved it?’
‘Don’t be so crude!’ said Portia. ‘You’re all astonished.’ She opened her bag. ‘Here’s a letter; read it at your leisure. It comes from Padua; from Bellario. In it you will discover that Portia was the doctor, Nerissa there, her clerk. Lorenzo here, will tell you that I set out immediately after you and have just returned. I haven’t even been inside yet. Antonio, you are welcome, and I have even better news for you than you expect.’ She took another letter out of her bag. ‘Open this letter soon. You’ll find that three of your ships returned to the harbour richly laden. I won’t tell you how I got hold of this letter.’
‘I’m speechless!’ said Antonio.
‘Were you the doctor and I couldn’t tell?’ said Bassanio.
‘Were you the clerk who wanted to cuckold me?’ said Gratiano.
‘Yes, but the clerk who doesn’t intend to do it, unless he lives to be a man!’
Bassanio took Portia in his arms. ‘Sweet doctor, you will be my bed partner,’ he said. ‘And when I’m away you can sleep with my wife.’
Antonio looked up from the letter. ‘Sweet lady, you’ve given me life and hope. I read here that my ships have reached the port safely.’
‘Well now, Lorenzo,’ said Portia. ‘My clerk has good news for you too.’
‘Yes, and I’ll give it to him for nothing,’ said Nerissa. She gave Lorenzo the will. ‘I hereby give you and Jessica a special deed of gift from the rich Jew – all his possessions after his death.’
‘Fair ladies,’ cried Lorenzo. ‘You drop manna in front of starving people!’
‘It’s almost morning,’ said Portia. ‘I’m sure there’s more that you want to know about these events. Let’s go in. You can interrogate us there and we’ll tell you everything you want to know.’
‘Let’s do that,’ said Gratiano. Her took Nerissa’s hand and led the way. ‘The first question my Nerissa will be sworn in to answer is whether she would rather wait till tomorrow night or go to bed now with only two more hours until daylight. If it were morning I’d be wishing it were dark so that I could take the doctor’s clerk to bed. Anyway, for as long as I live I’ll respect nothing more than keeping Nerissa’s ring safe!’