Act Four: The Trial

The vast majority of The Merchant of Venice‘s two-scene fourth act comes in the act’s first scene (455 vs 19 lines), and this is the trial scene, in which Antonio faces his fate under Shylock’s contract.

The Duke of Venice presides over the trial, and tells Shylock that “the world thinks” (IV.i.17) Shylock will push his point to the end of the trial then “show (his) mercy” (IV.i.20). The Duke goes on to talk of “human gentleness and love” (IV.i.25), concluding, “We all expect a gentle answer, Jew” (IV.i.34).

Shylock, of course, refuses.

Bassanio attempts to argue with Shylock, but Antonio stops him, realizing “You may as well go stand upon the beach // And bid the main flood bate his usual height” (IV.i.71-72). Bassanio then tries to use Portia’s money to buy Shylock off, again to no avail. Antonio intones,

I am a tainted wether of the flock,
Meetest for death: the weakest kind of fruit
Drops earliest to the ground, and so let me.
You cannot better be employ'd, Bassanio,
Than to live still and write mine epitaph.

— IV.iv.114-118

Antonio is resigned to his fate, albeit melodramatically so.

At this point, Nerissa arrives, dressed as a man, with a message from Padua’s Bellario, who was supposed to render the judgment. The message says that another man, Balthasar, will judge in his place. This is accepted by the Duke, and Portia enters, dressed as a Doctor of Law… she is Balthasar.

Portia/Balthasar begins to question the litigants, stating that “the Jew (must) be merciful” (IV.i.181). When Shylock asks why, we get one of the most famous speeches in all the Canon:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

— IV.i.182-186

The speech goes on at some length, and it is a moving speech. It’s meant to move us as an audience, but of course, Shylock is not one of us, and he is not moved. After Shylock refuses the payment, late but tripled in amount, Portia/Balthasar concludes that the bond must be honored.

Shylock is thrilled, calling the judge “a Daniel come to judgment” (IV.i.221). He continues his praise of the judge as Portia/Balthasar continues to call for the bond, and tells Antonio to “lay bare (his) bosom” (IV.i.250). Shylock has the scale to weigh the flesh, but Portia/Balthasar asks if he also has “some surgeon… to stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death” (IV.i.255-256). Shylock balks at this, and Antonio says his good-bye to Bassanio, who responds,

Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem'd above thy life.
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all
Here to this devil, to deliver you.

— IV.i.280-285

It’s a bold and loving statement, and one easy to make when that wife isn’t there, and Portia/Balthasar calls him on it: “Your wife would give you little thanks for that, // If she were by, to hear you make the offer” (IV.i.286-287). If this wasn’t bad enough, the other male newlywed, Gratiano, even says that he wishes his wife (dead) in heaven so she could more easily ask God to intervene. Shylock ridicules “these … Christian husbands” (IV.i.293).

This seems to snap Portia/Balthasar back into judgment mode, and she calls for the cutting to begin, save for one last caveat:

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.'
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.

— IV.i.304-310

Momentum shifts to the Christians. Shylock then says he will take the money, but Portia/Balthasar demands that “the Jew shall have all justice… he shall have nothing but the penalty” (IV.i.319-320). She goes on to say that if it isn’t exactly one pound, not only will Shylock lose his lands and goods, but he “diest” (IV.i.330) as well. Gratiano mockingly mimics Shylock’s own words from just moments before: “A second Daniel, a Daniel, Jew!” (IV.i.331).

When Shylock then attempts to give up his suit, (in a move that sounds like Dean Wormer’s “little-known codicil in the Faber College constitution”) Portia/Balthasar proclaims that Venetian law dictates that if any “alien” (IV.i.347) be found guilty of “seeking the life of any citizen” (IV.i.349), then the citizen would receive half the alien’s goods, and the other half will go into the Venetian coffers… AND the alien is sentenced to death, a sentence that can only be overturned by the Duke.

The Duke preemptively pardons Shylock but does take away Shylock’s wealth, prompting the Jew to beg for death, for the Duke “may take (Shylock’s) life // When (he does) take the means whereby (Shylock) lives” (IV.i.374-375). At this point, Antonio steps in, saying that Shylock can keep his money, on one condition: “He presently become a Christian” (IV.i.385).

Shylock agrees (what choice does he have?), and he exits the scene to go home as he is “not well” (IV.i.394); Shylock is never seen again.

The remainder of the scene has Bassanio trying desperately to persuade Balthasar to accept some gift for his service. Balthasar refuses, but when Bassanio presses further, Portia/Balthasar comes up with a gift: “this ring” (IV.i.425) from Bassanio’s hand. After some arguing and a final convincing by Antonio, Bassanio gives up the ring.

The short Act Four, Scene Two, Portia and Nerissa discuss getting Gratianio’s ring as well, and “outfac(ing)” (IV.ii.17) their husbands when they get back to the Belmont.

is this the best wackiness ol’ Willie can bring to this play?

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