Decoding Act V of The Merchant of Venice

Audrey Zielenbach is the Artistic Assistant of Gulfshore Playhouse.

Zach Martens (Lorenzo) and Angela Janas (Jessica)

Zach Martens (Lorenzo) and Angela Janas (Jessica) in The Merchant of Venice

Over the past few weeks, I have led a number of discussions for The Merchant of Venice for our Synergy programs, including three Script Clubs. At each Script Club, people have been very curious about the beginning of Act V. When discussing our adaptation, I have mentioned that we made an effort to remove lengthy references to archaic myths that we thought would slow the action of the play and possibly confuse people listening. However, we chose to keep the conversation at the top of Act V which is rife with references to various myths. I thought I would take you through the stories that they are referencing. If you too were questioning the meaning of this scene, then this might help you understand!

The moon shines bright. In such a night as this,
When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees
And they did make no noise, in such a night
Troilus, methinks, mounted the Trojan walls
And sighed his soul toward the Grecian tents
Where Cressid lay that night.

Troilus and Cressida, which eventually became a play by Shakespeare, were lovers during the Trojan War. The characters are from the Iliad but bore no connection to one another. The two were first tied together in a 12th century French poem, a 14th century Italian poem, and in Geoffrey Chaucer’s poem, Troilus and Criseyde. In the story, the two are Trojans. Cressida, the daughter of a Seer who abandons Troy for Greece, falls in love with Troilus, the youngest son of the Trojan King. Cressida’s father convinces the Greeks to arrange a transfer of hostages – Cressida for a Trojan prisoner of war. Troy agrees to the trade and Cressida promises Troilus she will deceive her father and return to Troy in 10 days. She quickly realizes the futility of this effort and eventually meets a Greek man named Diomedes. When she does not return to Troy, Troilus goes to the camp and sees Cressida flirting with Diomedes. In doing so, she has betrayed Troilus’s love.

JESSICA In such a night
Did Thisbe fearfully o’ertrip the dew
And saw the lion’s shadow ere himself
And ran dismayed away.

The story of Thisbe and Pyramus comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. They are lovers in the city of Babylon who live in connected homes but are forbidden to wed because of their parents rivalry. The two whisper their love through a crack in the wall and arrange to meet beneath a Mulberry tree. When Thisbe arrives, she is met by a lioness whose mouth is bloody from a recent kill. Thisbe flees in fear, her scarf falling from her head as she goes. When Pyramus arrives, he finds Thisbe’s scarf and assumes she has been killed by a beast. In despair, Pyramus falls on his own sword. Later, Thisbe returns to find Pyramus dead and eventually kills herself with his sword as well. Does this story sound familiar? It served as inspiration for another famous Shakespearean tale about two lovers in Verona.

LORENZO In such a night
Stood Dido with a willow in her hand
Upon the wild sea-banks, and waft her love
To come again to Carthage.

Dido comes from Roman mythology, Virgil’s Aenid. Dido was the founder and first queen of Carthage. Aeneas, the leader of a Trojan fleet blown off course, finds refuge in Carthage. Dido hosts a banquet in his honor during which he narrates the story of the ongoing Trojan War. The Roman Gods Juno and Venus act in concert to make Dido and Aeneas fall in love with one another. Eventually, it comes to the attention of Jupiter that Aeneas is wasting time with Dido so he sends Mercury to intercede and send Aeneas on his way. Aeneas reluctantly obeys and Dido, devastated by her abandonment, places a curse on the Trojans and commits suicide. Willows were an emblem of forsaken love.

JESSICA In such a night
Medea gathered the enchanted herbs
That did renew old Aeson.

Medea, the daughter of the King of Colchis, is featured in the myth of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason comes to Colchis in search of the Golden Fleece. Medea, a sorceress, falls in love with Jason and promises to help him with his quest should he agree to marry her if he is successful. Both come true and Medea sails away with Jason and the fleece. There is a celebration upon his return but Jason’s father, Aeson, is too weak to attend it so Medea draws his blood from his body and fuses it with herbs before putting it back thus reviving him. Medea and Jason went on to have 6 children. Although this sounds like a happy story, it doesn’t have a happy ending. If you’ve read Euripides’ famous play, you know that Jason and Medea’s tale ends in tragedy.

So what does it mean for Lorenzo and Jessica that they are likening their own love story to these? Well, I leave it up to you to decide!

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