The Merchant of Venice
Act IV, scene i, lines 164–396
. . . Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. . . .
Portia enters, disguised as Balthasar. The duke greets her and asks whether she is familiar with the circumstances of the case. Portia answers that she knows the case well, and the duke calls Shylock and Antonio before her. Portia asks Antonio if he admits to owing Shylock money. When Antonio answers yes, Portia concludes that the Jew must be merciful. Shylock asks why he must show mercy, and, in one of the play’s most famous speeches, Portia responds that “[t]he quality of mercy is not strained,” but is a blessing to both those who provide and those who receive it (IV.i.179). Because mercy is an attribute of God, Portia reasons, humans approach the divine when they exercise it. Shylock brushes aside her pretty speech, however, by reiterating his demands for justice and revenge.
Portia asks whether Antonio is able to pay the money, and Bassanio offers Shylock twice the sum owed. If need be, Bassanio says, he is willing to pay the bond ten times over, or with his own life. Bassanio begs the court to bend the law slightly in order to exonerate Antonio, reasoning that such a small infraction is a little wrong for a great right. Portia replies, however, that the law shall not be broken—the decrees of Venice must stand. Shylock joyfully extols Portia’s wisdom, and gives her the bond for inspection. She looks it over, declares it legal and binding, and bids Shylock to be merciful. Shylock remains deaf to reason, however, and Portia tells Antonio to prepare himself for the knife. She orders Shylock to have a surgeon on hand to prevent the merchant from bleeding to death, but Shylock refuses because the bond stipulates no such safeguard.
Antonio bids Bassanio farewell. He asks his friend not to grieve for him and tells Bassanio that he is happy to sacrifice his life, if only to prove his love. Both Bassanio and Gratiano say that, though they love their wives, they would give them up in order to save Antonio. In a pair of sarcastic asides, Portia and Nerissa mutter that Bassanio’s and Gratiano’s wives are unlikely to appreciate such sentiments. Shylock is on the verge of cutting into Antonio when Portia suddenly reminds him that the bond stipulates a pound of flesh only, and makes no allowances for blood. She urges Shylock to continue collecting his pound of flesh, but reminds him that if a drop of blood is spilled, then he will be guilty of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen and all his lands and goods will be confiscated by the state. Stunned, Shylock hastily backpedals, agreeing to accept three times the sum, but Portia is insistent, saying that Shylock must have the pound of flesh or nothing. When Shylock finds out that he cannot even take the original three thousand ducats in place of the pound of flesh, he drops the case, but Portia stops him, reminding him of the penalty that noncitizens face when they threaten the life of a Venetian. In such a case, Portia states, half of Shylock’s property would go to the state, while the other half would go to the offended party—namely, Antonio. Portia orders Shylock to beg for the duke’s mercy.
The duke declares that he will show mercy: he spares Shylock’s life and demands only a fine, rather than half of the Jew’s estate. Shylock claims that they may as well take his life, as it is worthless without his estate. Antonio offers to return his share of Shylock’s estate, on the condition that Shylock convert to Christianity and bequeath all his goods to Jessica and Lorenzo upon his death. Shylock consents and departs, saying simply, “I am not well” (IV.i.392).
In the course of this section of Act IV, scene i, Portia not only releases Antonio from his bond, but effectively strips Shylock of both his religion and his livelihood, rendering him unable to inflict, or even threaten, further damage. This outcome is little surprising given that the circumstances of the trial seem designed to ensure Shylock’s defeat. The genre of comedy demands that Shakespeare dispatch his villain before ushering in a happy ending. Indeed, Shakespeare’s sixteenth-century audience never doubts Shylock’s fate. Neither the duke, who begins proceedings by declaring Shylock an “inhuman wretch,” nor the disguised Portia are impartial judges (IV.i.3). Shylock must fall, and fall he certainly does, but our response to witnessing his fall may be mixed. Audiences in Elizabethan England most likely met Shylock’s demise with something like Gratiano’s cruel and ecstatic glee. In a society that not only craved cultural homogeneity but took drastic measures to attain it, few would have been troubled by the implications of Shylock’s forced conversion. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the majority of whom assumed that eternal damnation was the fate of any non-Christian, would have witnessed Shylock’s conversion as a vital contribution to the play’s happy ending. By turning Shylock into a Christian, the Venetians satisfy themselves with their own kindness in saving the soul of a heathen. Audiences today find laughing at Shylock to be much harder.
Many readers find it difficult to rejoice in Portia’s victory. Ultimately, Shylock’s pursuit of a strict letter-of-the-law brand of justice, which makes no allowance for anything that even approaches compassion, undoes him. He proves blind to everything other than the stipulations of his bond, refusing even to summon a doctor to attend to Antonio’s wounds. But we may feel that the punishment Portia exacts is too heavy. Perhaps the court’s verdict fits Shylock’s crimes, but the court indulges in an equally literal and severe reading of the law in order to effect the same vicious end: the utter annihilation of a human being. Before doling out Shylock’s punishment, the duke assures him that he will “see the difference of our spirit,” but the spirit of the Venetians proves to be as vindictive as the Jew’s (IV.i.363). The duke spares Shylock’s life, but takes away his ability to practice his profession and his religion. In the course of the play, Shylock has lost his servant, his daughter, his fortune, and a treasured ring given to him by his dead wife. He will forfeit his estate to the man responsible for stealing his daughter, and he will abandon his religion for one that forbids him from practicing the trade by which he earns his livelihood. Modern audiences cannot help but view Shylock as a victim. He has become a tragic figure in a comedy that has no place for a character so complex.
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