The Merchant of Venice: Act 5, Scene 1 - Summary

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Act 5, Scene 1

      Back in Belmont, Portia welcomes her husband and shortly after, asks to see his ring. When he cannot produce it, Portia brings the ring forth.

      Shakespeare's last act, another 'thematic appendix to the dramatic action, is motivated by the device of the rings. It begins with a most remarkable passage, Lorenzo's famous praise of music. In this are treated 'topics' which, as James Hutton shows in an extremely important study ['Some English Poems in Praise of Music', English Miscellany II (1951)], are all evidently the regular parts of a coherent and familiar theme - so familiar indeed, that Shakespeare permits himself to treat it 'in a kind of shorthand'. The implications of this 'theme' are vast; but behind it lies the notion, very explicit in Milton's 'Ode at a Solemn Musick', of the universal harmony impaired by sin and restored by the Redemption. The lovers, in the restored harmony of Belmont, have a debt to Antonio:

You should in all sense be much bound to him,
For, as I hear, he was much bound for you.

      In such an atmosphere the amorous sufferings of Troilus, Thisbe, Dido and Medea are only shadows of possible disaster, like the mechanicals play in A Midsummer Night's Dream; Antonio on his arrival is allowed, by the contretemps of the ring-plot, to affirm onca more the nature of his love, standing guarantor for Bassanio in perpetuity, 'my soul upon the forfeit. The Merchant of Venice, then, is 'about' judgment, redemption and mercy; the supersession in human history of the grim four thousand years of unalleviated justice by the era of love and mercy. It begins with usury and corrupt love; it ends with harmony and perfect love. And all the time it tells its audience that this is its subject; only by a determined effort to avoid the obvious can one mistake the theme of The Merchant of Venice.

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