In The Merchant of Venice, the late-night setting of act 5, scene 1 is conducive to the romantic interactions among the young couples: Lorenzo and Jessica, Portia and Bassanio, and Nerissa and Gratiano. The dim silvery moonlight also supports the clandestine aura of the characters’ interactions, in contrast to the bright sunlight of daytime, which would be more conducive to above-board transactions. The moonlight provides enough illumination for the characters to see each other—and, in the staging, for the audience to see the actors—and encourages Lorenzo to make romantic comments.
As the scene begins, Lorenzo and Jessica exchange poetic thoughts that are also humorous banter, as Jessica gently pokes fun at Lorenzo’s romantic excesses. After Lorenzo begins with an observation about the brightness of the moon, he invokes previous notable nights in history when lovers met. He uses the tag phrase, “in such a night,” which Jessica picks up on in her reply. They then go back and forth five more times, each time digging at each other a bit more, until Jessica pronounces that she would win their contest: “I would out-night you,” except that someone is coming.
The sound that this messenger, later revealed as Stephano, makes is evident in the “silence of the night,” as Lorenzo puts it. He also calls attention to Portia’s movements that will be complete before daybreak.
Once Lorenzo is assured that his wedding plans are going forward, he waxes eloquent about the moonlight. In associating the moon with music, he suggests that musical harmony corresponds to their harmony as a couple.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit, and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears; soft stillness, and the night,
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Jessica remains crabby; he further persuades her by invoking Orpheus, the mythical lyre player, who used “the sweet power of music” to change the nature even of people “full of rage.” Moonlight can resemble music in that the latter keeps the human spirit from being “dull as night.”