The Merchant of Venice (6)

This lengthy and formal scene, which takes up almost all of Act Four, is the climax of the bond plot, the casket plot having already terminated: it is the trial by which the terms of the bond between Shylock and Antonio are tested legally and we await it with growing interest, possibly feeling that there must be a way out for Antonio since the penalty is too gruesome for the predominant tone of the drama. Also, we know that Portia has a secret plan and, since we respect her intelligence and effectiveness, we sense that she will triumph. Yet the scene has many points at which it looks as if a dark outcome is possible and the arguments require us to keep our wits about us as we follow them, as well as having our emotions and sympathies on the alert.
The scene opens with the Duke expressing sympathy for Antonio and criticism of Shylock as:
A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch,
Uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.
Despite this view he must adhere to the law, as Antonio recognises, accepting that the Duke has done much to try to change Shylock’s intentions: Antonio then reverts to his former passive melancholy and prepares to endure his fate. The mention of mercy so early in the scene suggests that we bear this ideal in mind, not only about Shylock’s attitude to Antonio but also with regard to the Christians’ treatment of the Jew. The lexis contrasts hardness and rage with patience and mercy.
The Duke opens the proceedings with a reasoned yet emotive plea to Shylock to withdraw his demand for a pound of Antonio’s flesh: at the same time he skilfully offers the Jew a way out which would preserve his dignity and reputation. He says that everyone believes that Shylock has come to court in order to show “mercy and remorse [pity]” at the last moment by not exacting the penalty and that this act would appear more “strange” [seemingly unnatural] and remarkable than the propopsed cruelty. This gives Shylock a chance to agree and save Antonio as well as his own pride; the court and audience waits to see if he will use the loophole. Those following the case think that Shylock will then forgive a portion of the amount owed and gain the sympathy of Venice. The speech is full of such words as “mercy”, “gentleness,” “love”, “pity” and “tender courtesy” intended to soften Shylock’s enmity and end the issue. There could be a pun on “gentle” meaning both “noble” and “gentile” which could anger a Jew by claiming such a quality for Christians only. Clearly Antonio looks depressed and cast down as he stands there and the Duke wishes that Shylock could commiserate with the terrible losses which he has suffered. There is opposing diction of harshness in words like “malice”,”cruelty”, “brassy bosoms and rough hearts of flint” with references to other nations renowned for savagery and inhumanity suggesting that Shylock would not wish to behave like them. It is an eloquent speech which could succeed under different circumstances and yet it shows that the Duke can only persuade; he cannot intervene in the law.
Shylock’s respose is lengthy and controlled in tone although expressing his hatred for Antonio. He gives three main reasons for adhering to the bond: that he has sworn it; that Venice dare not risk its reputation by failing to stick to the law; that he has an irrational antipathy to Antonio. This last takes up most of the speech and is unanswerable to reason. If he were to be asked why he prefers “carrion [dead]” flesh to the three thousand ducats he would reply that it is his “humour [whim]” (this word also refers to one of the four humours or liquids which were believed to dictate temperament.) As analogies he gives the example of ridding his house of a rat by poisoning it – and one notes the contemptuous animal references – of people who cannot tolerate the sight of a pig or cat and of those who urinate and shame themselves at the sound of bagpipes. These are instances of “affection [natural emotions]” over which the individual has no mastery and he accepts that there is no “firm reason to be rendered.” The repetition of the ideas, the anaphora at the three queries “Why he” and rhythms make the blank verse compulsive like the feelings described and he is cunning to avoid the demand to listen to reason. By stressing reactions beyond the power of rationality he is confident that he need not answer questions or arguments further, showing himself to be convinced he will win the case. His language is clear and often monosyllabic: “So can I give no reason, nor I will not” and it resonates in our minds as does the wording of his attitude: “a lodged hate and a certain loathing.” We are also querying whether or not the treatment of him by the Christians justifies this deadly hostility whilst those in court are probably displaying horror and repugnance. Man was felt to be distinguished from an animal and higher than a beast because of his God-given capacity to reason and here Shylock is renouncing it in favour of ungovernable emotion. He wants to move forwards quickly to take his revenge and does not care what people think of him. Ironically, whilst belittling Antonio by his animal comparisons, he unwittingly debases himself to the level of a beast by his negation of reason.
There follows a one-line interchange between Shylock and Bassanio out of which emerge two further clues to Shylock’s character: one is his stress on what is “bound” by law and the second is his deep-seated sense that hatred necessarily involves killing: “Hates any man the thing he would not kill.” Antonio’s intervention (line 70 ff) bids them “think [bear in mind]” that they are engaging in argument with a Jew and it is not clear whether his speech refers to the hard heart of Shylock the individual or the Jew as typical of his race. Again there are three analogies to emphasise the unassailable and unchangeable nature of the man: the rising flood; the cruel wolf and the wind-blown mountain pines which cannot be persuaded to go against their nature. To alter these would be as hard as softening Shylock’s heart which is the toughest thing that exists. Wearily Antonio asks that there should be no more discussion, merely the course of justice allowing Shylock his “will”, which is an animal attribute, tempered in a human by reason. Bassanio offers Shylock more money than required (Portia’s money in fact) but he refuses any offer in favour of his bond. The Duke uses the key word “mercy”, asking Shylock how he can hope for this if he will not give it, which keeps the concept in our minds throughout.
The first line of Shylock’s reply (line 89): “What judgement shall I fear doing no wrong?” reveals that he simply does not understand the concept of mercy or forgiveness but the rest of his speech must attract some sympathy. We learn that the Christians keep slaves who are treated like animals and therefore, in his opinion and perhaps ours, have no right to dictate to him his usage of another person – although we would stop at the thought that he can take his pound of flesh. His argument is that, if he were to persuade the Christians to release their slaves and let them marry their offspring or have soft beds and delicate food, they would answer that the slaves belong to them and can be used as the masters wish. His reasoning is well controlled and effective, ending with the regular reminder that Venice cannot afford to relax its laws as it would then lose credibility as a trading city. Ironically he is trying to make them slaves to their own law. The Duke cannot answer either of these points and merely states that the court can be dismissed unless a Dr. Bellario presents himself to be the judge. The more attentive members of the audience may recall the name from the scene when Portia sends a message to him but the connection could escape notice.
A messenger is ouside with letters from this Doctor and, while we await this development, Bassanio makes a short but important speech. He shows that he has not fully cpmprehended Shylock’s attitude as he offers himself for the penalty although it is clear that Antonio is the only victim who will satisfy the Jew’s unswerving desire for revenge. It is an extravagantly loyal and sincere proposal but not what is needed. He also mentions a drop of blood which prefigures the later turning point in the trial and may remain in the minds of the audience when that moment arrives. Antonio demonstrates once more his melancholy and passive acceptance of his fate when he describes himself as the “tainted [sick or sinful]” sheep in the flock and the most suitable to be killed. A less striking metaphor depicts him as a weak fruit and the actor must decide how he delivers these lines: is he self-pitying, melodramatic or dignified in his acceptance of the role of scapegoat and sacrifice? The last two lines do reek of histrionics as he advises Bassanio, who loves him, to compose his epitaph. Perhaps he is a standard figure of melancholy or perhaps his affection for Bassanio is such that, if he cannot have him, he does not care if he lives or dies and the downward rhythms of his speech act out this despair.
At line 118 Nerissa enters dressed as a juvenile lawyer’s clerk: it is believed that, since women’s parts were played on the Elizabethan stage by boys, they were only to happy to appear as males. The clue to her identity is the double mention of Bellario and a producer may show her face or otherwise indicate who she is so that the audience recognises her. Yet there is a risk that her identity might not be clear as Shylock is, at that very moment, performing the distracting and grotesque gesture of sharpening his knife on his footwear, an arresting piece of business which strikes all watchers with the gruesome reality of what may happen. Bassanio is horrified and Gratiano makes a bitter pun by saying that the Jew is attacking his soul by the proposed sin not merely using the sole of his shoe. Gratiano cannot contain his anger and claims that he can believe that Shylock’s soul is that of an animal according to the doctrine taught by the Greek philosopher, Pythagoras, in the doctrine of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls whereby the soul of an animal could pass into a human at death. He feels that Shylock’s dog-like soul is that of a wolf, hanged for killing a person, which was transferred to the Jew and created desires that are “wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.” He is “inexecrable [too vile for cursing]” and should be killed even if justice itself is thereby guilty. Shylock’s only response is to criticise Gratiano for his intervention and it is true that he was ranting out of extreme rage when there was little hope of changing the Jew’s mind or attitude. Yet, in performance, the subsequent pause does direct our attention to the name of Bellario, his letter and the attendance outside of a “young and learned” lawyer who will soon be admitted. This time we are alert to the possibility of his being a disguised Portia.
The Duke reads out the letter purporting to be from Bellario which explains his absence through illness and his replacement by the young Balthazar, Portia in lawyer’s clothes. The missive claims that this Doctor of Law is thoroughly conversant with the details of the case and has added his own admirable learning to the consideration of the matter. There is also a pre-empting device whereby the extreme and somewhat incredible youth of the newcomer, Portia, (since “she” is played by a boy) is excused and the Duke and court are requested that it should not be an impediment since he “never knew so young a body with so old a head.”
Portia immediately takes charge and goes through the initial enquiries and formalities in an organised, swift and authoritative manner, asking the adversaries to stand forward and stating clearly that, whilst Shylock’s case is bizarre and unusual, it cannot be refused within Venetian law. Antonio admits that he is in Shylock’s “danger [power]” to which Portia replies that the Jew must therefore be merciful. Shylock picks up the word “must” and asks what is the “compulsion” to show mercy.
Portia’s famous speech points out that “The quality [virtue] of mercy is not strained [cannot be compelled]” but that it is akin to the falling of rain (see Ecclesiasticus xxxv 20) and blesses both the giver and the receiver. With consummate control over her material, she argues movingly and convincingly that it is the highest attribute of a monarch whose sceptre is a symbol of power, a lower value but one which causes the subjects’ fear of the ruler. It is the Godly aspect of the king and, if mercy is never shown, no-one would be forgiven and saved at the Day of Judgement. In the Lord’s Prayer we beg for mercy and should therefore dispense it in our turn as “the deeds of mercy” (see St Matthew xxv 34-46). Yet she accepts that he has choice and that the court must abide by the law and his right to his pound of flesh. The persuasive rhythm of this plea along with the imagery of rain and the religious references (others are to Galatians and Romans) make it potent but Shylock, despite the implicit warning that he will receive no mercy if he grants none, is adamant that he will take that risk and apply the bond, accepting responsibilty for his deeds. The audience is swayed by Portia’s rhetoric but he is not. He is clearly listening intently as he picks up her term “deeds.” Yet we feel that she may have an underlying plot to save Antonio whilst remaining firmly on the literal side of the law since we cannot believe that she would appear here in order to argue ultimately in Shylock’s favour: this sense does not lessen the tension, however, as the pace of the scene leaves us little time for reflection.
When Shylock says “My deeds upon my head” he challenges fate and leaves a trace feeling that there might be some way in which his cruelty will rebound on him but, for the moment, we cannot foresee what that might be. Portia establishes that the money could be repaid many times over: dramatic irony is a strong influence here as it is her wealth that Bassanio offers even though it is with her earlier permission. His passionate tone (“my hands, my head, my heart”) may awaken her to the fact that the close and tight friendship between him and Antonio will have to be altered if her marriage is to succeed. His request that the law should be qualified causes us to ponder about the relaxing of bonds: perhaps the ties of love can be bent but not financial agreements. “To do a great right, do a little wrong” suggests a moral relativism inappropriate to business dealings but possible in human relationships.
Portia is firm that this cannot happen since a precedent for changing a legal bond would allow further violations and Shylock is ecstatic about her wisdom which he compares to the famed judiciousness of the young Daniel. Shylock holds out the bond with great haste and, when Portia pleads with him to allow her in mercy to tear it even though he may legally claim the specified pound of flesh from near Antonio’s heart, he is adamant in refusal. She summarises all the arguments in a neat, short entreaty.
Shylock praises her as “a worthy judge” and a “well-deserving pillar” of the law whose remarks have been “most sound”: by this testimony he shows a confidence in her that cannot be denied later. The crisis seems to have arrived when Portia instructs Antonio to prepare his chest for the cut and Shylock cannot contain his jubilation: “O noble judge, o excellent young man” and recalls the words of Bellario’s letter: “How much more elder art thou than thy looks.” He is so urgently intent on his revenge that he makes hasty statements which tie him up later. Portia now, with cunning, asks for a surgeon to stand by at his own expense, knowing that Shylock will insist on the exact terms of the bond and nothing more and that she can then twist this refusal to Antonio’s advantage.
Antonio’s speech at line 260 shows his generosity in not wishing his friend to grieve for him, claiming that he would rather die young than live to a miserable old age but his account shows his melancholy cynicism and negativity also. He wishes to be remembered to Bassanio’s wife (note the dramatic irony again particularly at: “bid her be judge”) and he makes sure that Bassanio does not feel gulity at the outcome. The bitter pun with which he ends show as brief upsurge of fighting spirit: “I’ll pay it presently [immediately] with all my heart.”