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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Study Guide
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The court in Venice is in session. The Duke of Venice expresses sympathy for Antonio, who thanks the Duke for the efforts he has made in dissuading Shylock from claiming his bond. Antonio holds no grudges, for he recognizes that the law must be followed. The Duke thinks that Shylock may have brought events to this stage to torment Antonio and feels that Shylock does not really intend to have his pound of flesh. The Duke asks for Shylock to be brought in. In a final attempt to dissuade Shylock, the Duke tells him that everyone expects mercy to be shown Antonio at the last moment. He also says that Antonio has been tormented enough and should now be released. It is also hoped that Shylock will reduce the amount Antonio owes him, taking pity on his reduced circumstance. Shylock, however, has sworn to collect his due and nothing will dissuade him. He could have three thousand ducats instead of flesh, but he has refused this offer consistently. He maintains that his stubbornness is the result of the loathing that he bears for Antonio.

Bassanio and Shylock argue about killing Antonio. Antonio interrupts and says that there is no point in trying to dissuade Shylock. Bassanio offers more and more of Portia's money to the Jew without any result. The Duke again asks Shylock to show mercy, reminding him that sometime he may need some mercy himself. Shylock's reply is that he will not seek pity since he does nothing wrong. He reminds the Christians that they are not guiltless, especially since they keep slaves whom they abuse. When asked to free their slaves, the Christians always refuse, saying that they have purchased them legally. In a like manner, Shylock feels justified in asking for his bond.

As the Duke prepares the final judgment, Bassanio tries to cheer Antonio and offers to die in his place. Just then, Salarino announces the arrival of the messenger of the learned doctor of law, Bellario of Padua. Nerissa arrives, dressed as a lawyer's clerk, and delivers the message. In this letter, Bellario asks the court to accept a young lawyer in his stead, since he himself is unwell and cannot come to defend Antonio. The letter states that this young lawyer from Rome, named Balthazar, is acquainted with the details of the case. He also asks the Duke not to judge the lawyer by his youthful appearance, since he is in reality very wise.

Shylock sharpens the knife for Antonio's flesh. Gratiano likens him to an animal, but Shylock mocks such youthful passion and asserts that he is legally in his right. The Duke sends Nerissa out to fetch her master. Portia enters, disguised as a young doctor of law. She asks Shylock and Antonio to identify themselves. Upon being asked, Antonio confesses to the bond. She tells Shylock that he is within his legal rights, but that he should show mercy, for mercy blesses the one who gives it as well as the one who receives it. She then argues that mere justice without mercy is insufficient, for mercy pays homage to God, who is all merciful. When Shylock is not persuaded, the young lawyer (Portia) asks Antonio if the money to repay the bond is available. Bassanio again offers to repay the debt many times over. He also pleads with the lawyer to disregard the law and perform a great deed. Portia replies that interference with the law is not possible, for it will set a wrong example. Hearing this, Shylock is gleeful and refuses Portia's offer of three times the debt as compensation. Portia instructs Antonio to lay bare his chest to receive Shylock's knife, which will cut away the pound of flesh closest to his heart. She asks Shylock to have a surgeon at hand to prevent Antonio from bleeding to death. Shylock refuses even this concession, since it is not stated in the bond. Antonio bids farewell to Bassanio, saying that he prefers to die for his beloved friend rather than live to a wretched old age. A grieving and guilt-ridden Bassanio says that he would sacrifice his all if he could save Antonio. Gratiano wishes his wife were in heaven to plead with the power there to bring about a change in the Jew. Both Portia and Nerissa remark that it is fortunate that their two wives are not present to hear such statements. Shylock berates his absent daughter for having married a Christian, saying he would have preferred her to wed a thief.

Portia pronounces the judgment that a pound of Antonio's flesh legally belongs to Shylock. As Shylock prepares to cut, Portia warns him that only a pound of flesh is assigned to him, but not a single drop of blood is he entitled to. If he spills one drop of Christian blood then all his property will be confiscated by the state of Venice. Shylock is shocked. He knows that it is impossible to cut away flesh without the loss of blood. He reverses his stand and asks for three times the debt instead. Bassanio eagerly offers the money, but Portia intervenes and asserts that the bond must be executed. She insists that Shylock cut off a pound. If it is a little more or a little less, then Shylock shall die and all his goods be confiscated.

Shylock now pleads only for the principal. Again Portia stops Bassanio from giving Shylock the money. She states that he shall only have flesh and that at danger to himself. A defeated Shylock prepares to leave the court empty-handed when Portia stops him. She cites a law of Venice that says if an alien plots to take a Venetian life, half his goods will be given to the citizen while the other half will belong to the state. Moreover, the life of the offender is at the mercy of the Duke. Before he is asked, the Duke pardons Shylock his life, but Shylock is unmoved by this display of mercy. He maintains that taking his goods is equal to taking his life.

Antonio asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half of his goods. His own half of Shylock's property will pass on to Lorenzo upon Shylock's death. Antonio has two other conditions for pardon: that Shylock become a Christian and that he leave all goods to Lorenzo and Jessica in his will. Shylock, having accepted these conditions, leaves the court a broken man. Bassanio offers Portia as a fee the three thousand ducats that were due to Shylock. Portia declines the money. Bassanio insists that Portia should accept something for her services. Relenting, she asks Antonio for his gloves and Bassanio for the ring he is wearing given to him by herself. Bassanio tries to avoid giving the ring by giving various reasons. Portia claims that the ungrateful Bassanio does not really want to give her anything at all. Bassanio admits that it is the engagement ring given by his wife. He explains that he is under a vow never to part with the ring. Portia leaves with Nerissa. Antonio pleads with Bassanio to give the ring to the lawyer who saved his best friend's life. Bassanio is persuaded and sends Gratiano with the ring after the lawyer. They plan to leave for Belmont the following morning.


Antonio's trial celebrates the qualities of mercy, friendship, and love. All the main characters come together in the play for the first time, and the audience (or the reader) is taken through Shakespeare's interpretation of justice. It is important, however, to remember that Shylock is being judged by people who are less than perfect. The Duke, who presides over the court, is sympathetic to Antonio and begs for mercy for Antonio. Antonio, although thankful to the Duke for his efforts, recognizes that the law must be followed. His fiery hatred of Shylock with which he started the play has abated, and Antonio is prepared to suffer at Shylock's hand. When Shylock is brought into the court, the Duke appeals in vain to "human gentleness and love," which the Jew does not possess. He then tells Shylock that everyone expects him to relent, and that Antonio has suffered enough. The Duke ends his plea by stating, "We all expect a gentle answer, Jew."

Totally in character, Shylock makes no attempt to justify himself, and refuses the appeal made by the Duke. He has sworn "by our holy Sabbath" to collect his dues. Bassanio then pleas with Shylock to change his mind, but to no avail. Antonio interrupts Bassanio, saying that one might well ask the wolf why he eats lambs, as try to soften Shylock's hard heart. He compares Shylock's temperament with the images of destructive forces and says that it is useless to appeal to Shylock on the grounds of decency and kindness since his evil differentiates him from all.

Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats now, but Shylock will not relent. The Duke makes a Christian appeal for mercy, reminding Shylock "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none." Shylock, however, firmly believes that he is doing nothing wrong and answers in legal terms, stating "What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?" He then claims that the Christians are the ones who do wrong, treating their slaves abjectly. Significantly, no one answers Shylock's accusations. The Christians have appealed to Shylock's sense of humaneness, but they do not treat their slaves in a humane manner themselves.

Portia's audacious plan is put into action as Nerissa enters and gives the Duke a letter from Bellario. Then Portia enters as the young, learned lawyer, who is familiar with the details of the case and who brings grace and mercy into the courtroom. She is introduced as Balthazar to Antonio and to Shylock. As Antonio confesses to the bond, she tells Shylock that he is within his legal rights to reclaim his bond, but that he should be merciful. Portia extols the quality of mercy with now famous words, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." Since mercy is a quality attributed to God, the merciful ones, with their deeds of compassion, come closest to divinity. Portia's speech underlines a main theme of the play, which is the value of kindness and generosity. The quality most appreciated by Elizabethan audience is the ability to give freely without the hope of profit.

Shylock is not affected by the eloquence of Portia's speech. He rebuffs her every offer. He also rejects Bassanio's offer of even more ducats. As a result, Bassanio turns to Balthazar (Portia), and pleads with her to stretch the law in Antonio's favor. Her reply is that the law is unchangeable. Only Shylock can decide to set the law aside through his mercy. If the law itself is tampered with in this one instance, it will set a precedent, cause "many an error," and make Venice an unacceptable place to do business. An elated Shylock praises this wise, young judge as "a Daniel come to judgment--yea, a Daniel! O wise young judge, how I do honor thee!" The reference here is to the Biblical figure of Daniel who gave justice to Susannah.

Portia pretends to relent and says the Jew may claim his pound of flesh. She directs Antonio to prepare himself for Shylock's knife, which he has been sharpening in anticipation. Antonio bids Bassanio, his dearest friend, a tearful farewell. He asks Bassanio to "commend me to your honorable wife, say how I lov'd you." A guilt-ridden and grieving Bassanio answers that he would sacrifice his wife, his wealth, and "all the world" if it would save his friend from death. Portia interjects: "Your wife would give little thanks for that if she were by to hear you make the offer." Gratiano takes the irony further as he wishes his wife to already be in heaven and with the angels so that she could "entreat some power to change this currish Jew."

Antonio's courage, as he prepares to die, is exemplary. Just as the suspense and the tension reach their height, Portia produces a legality in the bond by stating, "This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood," only a pound of flesh. The wise Portia is now playing upon Shylock's literal interpretation of the law, for which Jews were well known. Shylock is dumbstruck, for he knows he cannot take a pound of flesh without drawing blood. He reverses his stand and is ready to accept the offer of triple the money due. Bassanio eagerly offers him the money, but it is now Portia's turn to insist that he must keep to the strict terms of the bond. She reminds him that "he hath refused it in open court," and may have only justice and the exact terms of the bond. Appropriately, Gratiano echoes the words with which Shylock has praised Portia. She is "an upright judge" and "a second Daniel." Gratiano then cries for his idea of justice, "an eye for an eye."

A defeated Shylock prepares to leave, but Portia stops him. She says "the law hath yet another hold on you." Any alien who plots against the life of a Venetian may be forced to give half his goods to the citizen, and the other half to the state. Moreover, the life of the alien "lies in the mercy of the Duke only." Portia's knowledge of the laws of Venice has left Shylock totally defenseless. Portia advises Shylock to get on his knees and "beg mercy of the Duke." Before he is asked to do so, the Duke pardons Shylock his life and offers to reduce his debt to the state to a mere fine. The Duke becomes the first picture of mercy in the play. The stingy Shylock, however, is unmoved by this display of mercy, and says, "You take my life when you do take the means whereby I live."

Antonio then steps in as the merciful one. He asks the court to pardon Shylock of his debt to the state. The half of Shylock's wealth that will go to Antonio will be passed on to Lorenzo at Shylock's death. The Jew must also leave all his possessions in his will to Lorenzo and Jessica. Antonio's final condition is that Shylock becomes a Christian. Antonio thus fulfills his role as a Christian by trying to save Shylock from damnation.

Although Shylock receives mercy, he pays a high price in his acceptance to become a Christian. His pain and humiliation are immense since he has such a deep hatred for Christianity. His torture increases at the knowledge that the Christian man who has eloped with his daughter will become his heir. A devastated Shylock accepts the conditions and asks permission to leave the court, saying that he is ill.

When the court is adjourned, Bassanio wants to give Portia the three thousand ducats intended for Shylock. The lawyer courteously refuses the offer. She says that Antonio's freedom is sufficient reward. Bassanio is insistent that Portia take some fee for her services, even if a token. Portia takes Antonio's gloves to wear, and then, noticing Bassanio's ring, she asks for it as a token of tribute. Bassanio explains that it is a ring given by his wife and emphasizes that he made a vow "Never sell nor give nor lose it." As Portia turns and leaves with Nerissa, Antonio pleads with Bassanio to give up the ring. Bassanio, devoted to Antonio and the friendship he has displayed, agrees to take off the ring. Bassanio sends Gratiano after her with the "payment".

This scene is one of the more masterful ones in all of Shakespeare. The explanation of justice and mercy, the irony that surrounds Shylock, the gentleness, kindness, and friendship of the Christians, in contrast to the stingy and unrelenting nature of the Jew are all perfect examples of why the writing of Shakespeare has lived through the age.

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Free Study Guide-The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare-Book Notes


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