Discuss how the trial scene in William Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice’ reveals a conflict between justice and mercy. Is the conflict resolved? If so how?
The Trial Scene (Act IV, Scene 1) of Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merchant of Venice‘ reveals a conflict between justice and mercy. While Shylock pleads for justice, Portia, disguised as Balthazar pitches for mercy.
Antonio and Bassanio had made a contract with Shylock while borrowing money for Bassanio’s visit to Belmont. If Antonio would fail to repay the three thousand ducats in time, Shylock would cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body. And due to the news of shipwrecks in the midst of seas, Antonio did fail to keep his words, to pay Shylock in time. This was a rare opportunity for Shylock to take revenge against all the insult and hatred he and his race had suffered so long in the hands of the Christians, and in his case especially in the hands of Antonio. So, it is very natural that throughout the entire Trial Scene, Shylock demands justice:
If you deny me, fie upon your law—
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment. Answer, shall I have it?
But the conflict arises when Portia enters the scene in disguise of Balthazar and says:
Then must the Jew be merciful.
Then Portia goes on to give a long speech on the value of mercy and requests Shylock to show his mercy to Antonio. Even Bassanio wants to pay him twice the sum of money right there or promise ten times on a future date. But Shylock does not agree to his proposal.
Though Shylock keeps demanding justice in its strict sense, his dogged persistence only reveals the evil wills of his mind. Getting his money back is not important to him, but getting revenge against Antonio is. So, here the virtue of ‘mercy’ seems to be the nobler way to go. Bassanio even appeals to the court to bend the law to do a great right by doing a little wrong:
Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.
Now, the situation appears so, if Shylock becomes merciful, he is denied of the justice he deserves. Again, if justice is done in the strict way, the noble virtues like mercy will get discouraged. And this is the conflict.
Is the conflict resolved? If so, how?
The conflict is only partially resolved by the clever judgement of Portia. She allows Shylock to get his bond, his justice. But there is a catch. As there is only the mention of “a pound of flesh” in the bond, Portia allows him to cut one pound of flesh from Antonio’s body without shedding a drop of blood. So Shylock cannot proceed further and gets bound by the complications of laws.
While most of the audience in Shakespeare’s time preferred to find themselves at Antonio’s side and would like to think the conflict to be resolved, modern critics sympathize with Shylock and sees him more as a victim than a villain. They think he does not deserve the penalty he finally receives. But yes, Shylock had better accepted twice or thrice the money which Bassanio wished to pay him. Yet, it does not justify the non-Christian attitude of Antonio and his race to a Jew. That is why the play is now called anti-Semitic.
Antonio, the merchant of Venice borrows money from Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, to send his friend Bassanio to Belmont to woo and marry his love, Portia.
However, when the bond expires Antonio fails to pay the money back in time. Shylock as per the terms of the bond takes Antonio to the court demanding from him a pound of flesh in payment.
Portia, the lead female protagonist is disguised as a lawyer with her friend and lady-in-waiting Nerissa. She saves Antonio from the evil clutches of Shylock by using the law in her favour. In this trial scene the main theme of “JUSTICE and MERCY” is highlighted.
Shylock does not want a single ducat but only seeks his revenge from Antonio, therefore he seeks JUSTICE and pleads the court stating that he cannot be denied of justice and wants a pound of flesh from Antonio as per the terms of the bond which both, Shylock and Antonio agreed upon.
On the controversy, Portia in the disguise of a lawyer moves the court for MERCY to Antonio, giving a long lecture on the virtue of mercy and how it does good to both who shows mercy and who receives.
As Shylock is rigid with his claim for justice, Portia challenges him, stating that as per the bond if Antonio has failed to return the money, Shylock can cut a pound of flesh from Antonio but without shedding a single drop of blood, which is practically impossible. Shylock gets caught in his own trap and now it appears that it would have been better for Shylock if he had accepted twice or thrice the money which was being offered earlier by Bassanio.
The situation appears so that, if Shylock becomes merciful he is deprived of the JUSTICE he deserves, revenge from Antonio. And, if justice is given to Shylock in a strict way at the cost of Antonio’s life, noble virtues like MERCY are discouraged.
All this adds up to the theme of conflict between JUSTICE and MERCY.
The audience in the Shakespearean period are seen on the side of Antonio, they see Shylock as bloodthirsty but would want the conflict to be resolved. But the modern readers see it the other way around. Nowadays Shylock is seen as more of a victim in the hands of the Christians than a villain.
If the play is understood in depth it is evident that it is Antonio who happens to be the real villain. He insults Shylock, his religion, his customs and traditions, his Jewish dress and also his business. He spits on him and treats him like a street dog in the Rialto in front of other merchants just because he is a Jew. Later, he seeks help from Shylock by asking him to lend him 3000 ducats, which Shylock does and they sign the bond. When Antonio is unable to pay the bond and sees his life at risk he begs for mercy.
At the end of the scene, Shylock is blamed for attempting to take the life of a noble Christian citizen, and he is forced to become a Christian. He loses his bond and has to part with half his wealth, and after he dies all his property and money will be inherited by Jessica and his son-in-law Lorenzo.
In conclusion, Justice fails and Mercy is granted, which does not appear to be sweet, selfless and full of grace as it is presented in the scene.