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.