Lorenzo and Jessica stare at the moon and talk about how the evening reminds them of Greek literature, and they liken their own situation to a Greek romance. They banter; Jessica claims that his vows are untrue, but Lorenzo says that he forgives her for slandering their love. Stephano, a messenger, enters and tells them that Portia will be returning from the monastery by sunrise. Lorenzo suggests they go back inside and prepare a welcome from Portia, but Launcelot then appears to tell them that Bassanio will also be arriving in the morning.
Lorenzo tells Stephano to prepare music for Portia’s arrival, and he suggests they remain outside to take in the heavenly evening. As musicians appear, Lorenzo bids that they play a song for the moon, but Jessica says that music never makes her feel merry. Lorenzo explains that when the soul hears music, it becomes still and attentive, in the same way that wild animals often stand still when they hear instruments. Only the most callous and villainous are not touched by music, and therefore it is good that Jessica does not feel merry. He suggests that she keep listening to the music.
At that point, Portia and Nerissa return and approach the house. Portia notices the light shining in the halls and believes that it is a symbolic commendation for the good deed she performed earlier that day. Nerissa says that she could not see the light before because of how brightly the moon had been shining, and Portia talks about how brightness is always relative to other instances of brightness.
They then notice the music coming from the house, and Portia thinks that it sounds lovely in the night. She comments on how all good things are relative to their context—for instance, a bird that makes a lovely sound may seem less attractive when singing next to a more sonorous bird. The music stops, and Lorenzo says that he believes he hears Portia approaching. She reveals herself, and he welcomes them.
Portia tells Lorenzo that they have returned from the monastery, where they were praying for their husbands, and wonders if their husbands have yet returned. Lorenzo tells Portia that a messenger announced that they would soon be returning. Portia sends Nerissa inside to tell the servants not to mention the ladies’ absence, and she instructs Lorenzo and Jessica not to mention it either.
A trumpet blares to announce the arrival of Gratiano, Antonio, and Bassanio. After some light banter, Portia welcomes her husband, and Bassanio introduces her to Antonio. Bassanio says that he is infinitely bound to Antonio, to which Portia replies, using wordplay, that Antonio had been bound for Bassanio. Portia welcomes Antonio as well, but at that moment, Gratiano, who had been speaking with Nerissa, insists that she is being unreasonable, and that he gave “it” to a judge’s clerk.
Portia asks what they are quarrelling about, and Gratiano says that they are arguing over a cheap gold ring that Nerissa had given him, with the inscription “love me and leave me not.” Nerissa says that the price or quality of the ring are not in question. Rather, she is upset by the fact that he promised to wear it until the day he died, and because he’s already given it up, his vows hold little meaning. He tells her that the clerk was just a boy about the size of Nerissa, and he could not bring himself to dismiss the boy when he asked for the ring as a fee. Portia sides with Nerissa and tells him that he should...
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have been more careful with his wife’s gift, adding that she would be mad if she were in Nerissa’s place.
Gratiano then says that Bassanio gave a ring to the lawyer, for neither the lawyer nor the clerk would accept fees other than the rings. Portia then asks which ring Bassanio gave. Bassanio admits that he gave away Portia’s ring, and both women refuse to lie with their husbands until they see the rings again. Bassanio attempts to defend himself, saying how worthy the lawyer was, but Portia insists that his honor was bound to that ring and suspects that he gave it to some other woman.
Bassanio continues to describe the pressure he felt to give the lawyer the ring; he insists that had Portia been there, she would have agreed that the lawyer deserved it. Portia then says that because Bassanio so willingly gave away something precious to the lawyer, he had better watch her carefully, because if the opportunity arises, she will give herself away to the lawyer, her body and her bed. Nerissa follows up that she will do the same for the law clerk. Bassanio pleads with Portia, swearing by her eyes, but she retorts that if he sees himself in both of her eyes, that must mean he is two-faced.
Antonio steps in, saying that while he offered his body as collateral for Bassanio before, he is willing to offer his soul as collateral should Bassanio break another vow. Portia then gives him the ring to give to Bassanio, and Nerissa gives him the ring to give to Gratiano. Both women claim that they slept with the legal experts to get their rings back. Portia finally explains what had actually happened, revealing that she and Nerissa were Balthazar and the clerk.
Portia further reveals that she has received a message for Antonio: that three of his reportedly lost ships have returned with their treasures. Nerissa then tells Lorenzo and Jessica about the deal that they struck with Shylock, wherein he bequeathed all of his possessions to them upon his death. Portia suggests that they go inside, because it is almost morning, saying she will explain the details of what happened. Gratiano delivers the last lines of the play, asking Nerissa if she would rather sleep with him now or later and promising that he will now keep the ring safe.
The final act is unusual for a comedy. Typically, Shakespearean comedies end with a marriage. However, by act 5, all of the major events of the play have already occurred. All of the main characters who planned to marry have been married, and Antonio’s dilemma with Shylock has been resolved by the end of the first scene in act 4.
Act 5, then, first serves to finalize the plot elements of the story, as Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano learn who came to their aid. Moreover, this act adds levity to the play. The audience is aware that Portia and Nerissa have taken the rings back from their husbands, but their husbands do not know this. Thus, the audience is essentially invited to view an extended prank which Portia and Nerissa play upon their husbands. While the wives feign anger and even talk about how they are considering sleeping with other men, the audience knows that this is all acting at the husbands’ expense. Eventually, when all is revealed, we know that there are no hard feelings held between wife and husband. Because the play ends on a light and comedic note, the audience is invited to feel a sense of relief.