The Merchant of Venice | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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The Merchant of Venice | Act 4, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Shylock and Antonio appear before the Duke of Venice. Shylock demands fulfillment of the letter of their contract, and Antonio believes it is pointless to argue or try to reason with Shylock. The duke hopes Shylock will relent and show Antonio mercy at the last minute, but Shylock makes it clear he has no such plan. He says he wants the pound of flesh because it is "[his] humor," and he refuses when Bassanio offers him twice the sum of the original loan. Shylock compares his entitlement to Antonio's body to the way other Venetians feel entitled to do as they will with the bodies of their slaves and animals.

The duke calls Doctor Bellario from Padua and Balthazar, Doctor Bellario's colleague from Rome, who is actually Portia in disguise. She first appeals to Shylock to show Antonio mercy because mercy is its own reward. She goes on to respond to Shylock's calls for justice by saying, "That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy." Shylock remains unmoved, just as he remains unmoved by Bassanio's repeated offers to pay twice or 10 times the sum of the loan. Portia looks at the bond and urges Shylock to accept three times the amount of the loan. When he refuses again, Portia bids Antonio to prepare for Shylock's knife. She waits until Shylock approaches Antonio with the knife before stopping him and informing him that the bond allows him a pound of Antonio's flesh, but it does not allow him any drop of Antonio's blood. It is impossible for Shylock to take his pound of flesh without spilling blood, so Shylock is found guilty of conspiring to commit murder against a citizen of Venice. He could receive the death penalty for this crime, but the duke spares his life. The duke takes half Shylock's fortune for the state and gives the other half to Antonio. Antonio asks the court to drop the fine of half his goods to the state and says he will give his own half of Shylock's fortune to Lorenzo and Jessica upon Shylock's death. He requires Shylock to leave any of his own possessions to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death as well and that Shylock convert to Christianity. Shylock agrees to these terms and leaves the court.

After Shylock departs and Antonio is freed, he and Bassanio thank Portia—still believing her to be Balthazar—for her assistance. They insist on giving her some payment for her trouble, and she takes Bassanio's gloves. She then asks for his ring, the one she gave him when they were wed. Bassanio refuses to part with the ring, and she scolds him for not giving her the ring and takes her leave. Antonio then convinces Bassanio to send the ring to the legal scholar saying, "Let his deservings and my love withal/Be valued 'gainst your wife's commandment." Bassanio sends Gratiano to catch up with Portia and give her the ring.

Analysis

Antonio's trial represents a confrontation between ideas that define the two religions at the heart of The Merchant of Venice. As presented in the play, Judaism is a religion focused on rules, following law, obedience, and justice in the form of punishment and atonement for wrongdoing. This reflects the Old Testament idea expressed in Exodus, Chapter 21: 23–25: "But if any harm follow, thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe." Shylock represents this point of view. On the other hand, Portia, the duke, and others represent the Christian ideal of mercy and salvation even for those who do not deserve it. Portia says this directly in her speech to Shylock. She admits no one deserves mercy but says we show mercy because it is a human good. At the same time, there are at least two Christians present in the court who have no desire to show Shylock any mercy at all. Gratiano tells Shylock if he were in charge, he would see Shylock hanged. A different moneylender might have shown Antonio mercy when asked; a different moneylender might never have asked for a pound of flesh as collateral.

For all the Venetians' attacks on Shylock for his trickery in the matter of his contract with Antonio, it is Portia whose trickery is most effective—and potentially deadly. She practices deception beyond the disguise she wears in the courtroom. After Shylock refuses to show mercy to Antonio, she goads him into moving to collect his pound of flesh. She urges him to sharpen his knife and move toward Antonio, even though she has read the bond and knows the loophole about spilling blood that she will invoke at the last minute. She does this to provide no doubt that Shylock is operating through malice and does intend to kill Antonio. In doing so she sets him up to lose the case and possibly receive a death sentence. Perhaps she suspects the duke will make an example of the mercy Shylock has refused to show, but she can't know that for certain. If she wanted Shylock to receive mercy, she might have warned him of the loophole in his contract. She might have warned him he would be subject to the death penalty if he pursued his present course. Her decision to entrap Shylock with his own contract seems based on a desire to punish his unwillingness to show mercy.

The themes of prejudice and mercy are most obvious in this scene. Shylock will not show mercy; he probably does not feel Christians have ever shown him any. But when Portia turns the tables, it first appears Antonio is willing to show mercy. Perhaps he has learned something from his experience. But, although he is happy for Shylock not to be condemned to death and asks that the state's half of Shylock's fortune be returned to Shylock for the duration of his life, he makes a demand that shows how deep his prejudice goes. Shylock must convert to Christianity, giving up the faith and customs that have formed the center of his life. Shylock agrees, but it is likely his agreement is only superficial. The audience cannot know what Shylock thinks of all this since he does not appear again in the play.

Portia's attempt to trick Bassanio into giving the ring she gave him to "Balthazar" appears designed to set him up for a later punishment for parting with his ring. It may be a punishment for Bassanio telling Antonio he would be willing to sacrifice his own wife to save Antonio's life. Portia is both clever and kind. Her ability to save Antonio when all the men around her have given up on doing so shows her wisdom is superior to that of all the other characters in The Merchant of Venice. Yet even Portia is not immune to the human desire for justice when she feels wronged by Bassanio.

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