Plot Summary / The Story-line
Act IV scene I is the all-important court scene in The Merchants of Venice. Antonio has been presented before the duke and other prominent persons of Venice. The duke is Worried about the judgment. He wants to save Antonio but he cannot find a lawful way to free Antonio from Shylock’s bond.
Shylock arrives at the court. The duke tells him that all people present there expect him to forgive Antonio and also some portion of the principal Antonio owes to him. Shylock replies that he has taken oath by his holy Sabbath that he will take one pound of Antonio’s flesh and nothing else. He denies more explanation on why he insists on this unprofitable bond. Bassanio and Gratiano too try to convince Shylock but without use.
Bassanio offers Shylock 6000 ducats, double the loan amount. But, as Antonio was unable to pay on time, Shylock refuses a repayment now even if it’s six times the loan amount. He just insists on his bond.
The duke tries to convince Shylock by stating that he would also be able to get mercy later if he shows mercy to others now. Shylock replies that he has not done anything wrong. He also compares his agreement to the Christian slave trade. He argues that he does not ask the Christians to release their slaves, so they should not insist on showing mercy to Antonio.
The duke says that he will dismiss the court unless Dr. Bellario, the law specialist, comes today. Salerio informs him that a messenger has come from Bellario. Then Nerissa enters, disguised as a man as well as the lawyer’s clerk. She tells the duke that Bellario has sent a letter to him.
Meanwhile, Shylock is sharpening his knife on the sole of his shoe. He is sure that he must get Antonio’s flesh. Dr. Bellario’s Letter instructs that a young, educated and intelligent lawyer he sends will handle the case in his place because of his illness. The duke welcomes the young lawyer (Portia in disguise) into the court room.
Portia enters disguised as the young lawyer named Balthazar. She informs the duke that she knows about the case thoroughly. Then she wishes to see the merchant and the Jew. Both Antonio and Shylock come forward.
Portia asks Antonio if he acknowledges the agreement. Antonio replies that he does. Now Portia opines that Shylock must be merciful. Portia explains (almost delivers a speech) how the virtue of mercy benefits both who shows mercy and who receives it. She requests Shylock to show mercy to Antonio.
But Shylock refuses to show mercy. He claims to fulfil his agreement. Portia then suggests him to take money if anyone is able to pay. Bassanio wishes to pay him six thousand ducats. But Shylock denies taking money. Now there is apparently no way to save Antonio. So, Portia delivers judgement in favour of Shylock.
Portia says that Shylock has the right to demand Antonio’s flesh according to the bond. Shylock is happy and repeatedly admires the wisdom of Portia calling her a “wise and upright judge” and “a Daniel”. Shylock is ready with his knife to cut Antonio’s flesh. Antonio bids farewell to Bassanio and tells him that he is glad to sacrifice his life for his friend. Bassanio and Gratiano suggest that they would even give up their wives in order to save Antonio. Portia and Nerissa light-heartedly alert them that their wives would not have liked such ideas.
Portia asks Shylock if he has arranged for a surgeon to stop bleeding and stich Antonio’s wound. Shylock objects that it is not mentioned in the bond. Antonio also confirms that he has no objection to this and is ready to die. So, Portia now declares that Shylock can cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s chest. The court awards it and the law authorizes it.
As Shylock is going to cut Antonio’s flesh Portia stops him for a moment. She says that the bond does not allow to shed Antonio’s blood while cutting flesh from his body. If Shylock sheds a drop of Christian blood, according to the Venetian law all his land and property will be confiscated by the state. She also mentions that Shylock has to take exactly one pound of Antonio’s flesh according to his bond. If he cuts even slightly more or less than one pound, Shylock will be sentenced to death.
We have reached the climax of the entire play. The case has now turned in favour of Antonio. Gratiano mocks Shylock by calling Portia “an upright judge” and “a second Daniel”. Shylock realizes that he cannot take his bond without violating the laws. He now wishes to get the money from Bassanio but Portia denies it as Shylock has previously rejected a payment in open court.
Having denied even his loan amount, Shylock drops the case and wants to get away from there. But Portia stops him saying the Venetian law has another hold on Shylock. If a stranger conspires to kill a Venetian then half of his property must be given to the Venetian. The other half of his property will be forfeited by the state. The life of the stranger will be in the hand of the duke.
Shylock is forced to beg mercy. The duke forgives his life showing him the difference between the Jew and the Christians. Shylock asks the duke to kill him instead. Antonio requests the duke to renounce the state’s claim on half of Shylock’s property. He will use the other half for now and hand it over to Lorenzo and Jessica upon Shylock’s death. Antonio suggests two more conditions that Shylock must become a Christian and must leave all his wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica upon his death.
Being helpless Shylock agrees to accept the conditions and leaves the court on permission. The duke invites the lawyer (Portia) to dinner. But Portia expressed her inability to attend the dinner as she had to return to Padua immediately. The duke asks Antonio to thank the young lawyer for saving his life and to give him some reward.
Bassanio and Gratiano thank Portia. Bassanio offers her the ducats as her payment. But she refuses to take it. Then Bassanio wants to offer the lawyer anything she prefers as a token. Portia agrees and she wants Antonio’s gloves And Bassanio’s engagement ring. Actually, Portia wants to justify her husband’s honesty. Bassanio refuses to give the ring. Instead of it he is ready to gift the lawyer the most valuable ring available in entire Venice. But Portia does not agree. Then Portia and Nerissa exit.
Antonio urges Bassanio to give the lawyer his ring considering the value of their friendship. Gratiano runs after them to give Portia the ring. Antonio and Bassanio are planning for their trip to Belmont next morning.
Commentary on Act IV, Scene 1
Act IV Scene 1 (called “court scene” or “trial scene”) is the longest and the most dramatic scene in the play “The Merchant of Venice”. It presents the main conflict of the play and reaches the height of climax. We see the titular character Antonio, the merchant of Venice facing a legal charge against him in the court and finally he finds a reason for his sadness that we saw in the opening scene of the play. So, the whole scene revolves around Antonio and his default of the bond.
It is no wonder that Shylock shows his strong hatred and cruelty against Antonio. He wants to take revenge against the whole Christian community through Antonio for all the insults he received from Antonio and others, all business losses inflicted on him and for the elopement of his daughter by a Christian. But what is somewhat astonishing is his dogged determination and especially the logics Shylock presents before the court to justify his cruelty. He simply outsmarts everyone present there except Portia.
The court proceedings are not modelled on the English legal system. Though the duke presides over the trial, the lawyer (Portia) makes all the decisions here. It is well-fitting for a character like Portia though, as no male character in the play is good enough to handle Shylock.
Many literary critics raise questions on whether the trial has been impartial and fair. The duke seems to be biased towards Antonio and characters like Gratiano and Bassanio too show their anti-Semitic attitude against Shylock.
And the eventual outcome of the trial – the Christians forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity and depriving him of his property by the hold of law – is seen as unchristian behaviour by modern critics. They find the play “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic and as a plea for religious tolerance. They sympathize with Shylock and see him more as a victim than as a villain.
In the Bible it is said that Jewishness is an internal condition, not external. It implicates that Shylock is a Jew not because he was born that way but because he acts this way. Antonio’s misbehaviours towards Shylock interrupt this explanation of Jewishness. He insults Shylock because of his outer features. Antonio is judged for this sin.
On the other hand, when Shylock made the bond (in Act I Scene 3), he pretended that he was making it in a light-hearted mood and would never go for Antonio’s flesh. But now we see his gruesome intentions. Moreover, Shylock crosses every limit in cruelty when he says that he won’t arrange for a doctor to bind Antonio’s wound as it is not mentioned in the bond. Therefore, his eventual fall and the punishments he receives in the hands of the Christians seem to be justified for his cunning and mean nature.
Shakespeare planned “The Merchant of Venice” as a comedy. So, saving Antonio from the hands of the Jew by the intelligent judgement of Portia served the purpose of a happy ending. Even the conversion of Shylock to Christianity was something to cheer about for the Elizabethan audience.
Portia as a lawyer does not show any favour to anyone. Here she not only saves Antonio from Shylock’s bond but saves Shylock from his egoism. She is presented as a unique woman more intelligent and virtuous than even her male counterparts.
Shakespeare has used dramatic and verbal irony in several places in this scene. Shylock calling Portia a “Daniel” but eventually getting punished himself is one such example. Again, Portia saying that Shylock will get more justice than he begged for has a verbal irony in it. She actually wanted to punish Shylock hard for his cruelty.