Antonio has entered into a bond with Shylock. In return for 3000 ducats which he wants for his friend Bassiano, he agrees to repay the money within three months or allow Shylock to cut a pound of flesh from anywhere on his body. His ventures fail and Shylock claims his forfeit. Antonio is arrested and brought to trail in the Court of Justice so that Shylock may claim the forfeit of his bond
Courtroom scenes always have a dramatic, tense atmosphere in novels, films, and plays for example in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, ‘Kramer Vs Kramer’ even ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. Shakespeare’s court scene in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ very likely the first court scene ever dramatised. It is full of tension which is maintained so that the audience feel a whole range of strong emotions whilst the extremely dramatic events unfold.Order now
The scene is very carefully constructed and this reflects the formality of the court and the procedures. Every formal offer and decision made by the characters brings the culmination of the scene and the outcome closer step by step and this has the audience ‘holding their breath’.
Where there is conflict there is tension and as soon as the scene opens the audience are soon to understand that the Duke of Venice who is to preside over the court is a biased judge. He greets Antonio warmly but refers to Shylock as:
‘A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
Incapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.’
As well as setting up a conflict the audience are reminded that this is not going to be an easy ‘battle’ considering the nature of Antonios ‘adversary’. This is another successful attempt at making the audience ‘sit on the edge of their seats’
The Elizabethan audience would have enjoyed the Duke’s description of Shylock and vent their fury at the ‘baddy’ by booing and hissing and throwing objects at the character as he stood before them in the courtroom scene. Shakespeare knew he was presenting them with a stereotypical character, that of the money-lending Jew, for their entertainment, as in Elizabethan Times, Jews were despised and reviled. In a modern day audience the tension developing in the audience becomes very great indeed as anger towards the character grows because of Shylock’s uncompromising
and vengeful nature, not because of his religion.
The tension is heightened even more when Portia enters disguised as Balthazar, a doctor of Law, with Nerissa as the lawyer’s clerk. This would make it easier in Elizabethan Times for the young men to take the role of the women. The audience are now riveted, not only because of the circumstances of Antonio’s plight but also in the knowledge that his fate is in the hands of Portia. The audience wonder when or if she will be recognised also whether she can ‘pull off’ what seems an impossible victory.
At the beginning of the interrogation Shakespeare shows us Shylock, hard and uncompromising, his obsess ional hatred of Christians, especially Antonio, making him even less of a sympathetic character for the audience. Shylock’s language throughout the scene includes imagery of a vile nature reflecting the hatred he feels and his desire to gain revenge. These include ‘rat baned’, ‘gaping pig’, ‘urine’ ‘hate’ and ‘loathing’.
This contrasts well with Antonio’s resignation to his fate and his noble patience.
‘I do oppose
My patience to his fury’
Antonio and Shylock’s battle; hatred, revenge and profit against friendship, love and mercy provokes an unrelenting tension throughout the scene. Good versus evilin any tale is a fascinating conflict and one which one is compelled to witness to the end.
Portia carefully lures Shylock into the ‘trap’. Step by step she leads Shylock on until he is certain of triumph. She knows that she is going to ‘turn the tables’ on him at the last moment. This careful build-up, starting with her famous ‘quality of mercy’ speech at which Shylock remains unmoved raises Shylocks hopes of victory and the audience fears for Antonio as nothing but mercy appears to be his escape from Shylocks forfeit. The Duke and Portia have already appealed for mercy without success. Antonio’s fate already seems sealed when Portia eventually says that the law has to be withheld;
‘there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.’
Shylock thinks that he will be triumphant. Shylock refuses to accept payment a second time. Portia announces that Shylock is entitled to the forfeit. The audience by this time would be insensed, horrified that the reviled Jew is legally able to have his pound of flesh! One last ‘tease’ from Portia suggesting that a surgeon be present to stop the blood brings short-lived relief for them as Shylock states that there is no mention of a surgeon in the bond. Antonio is calm and an audience feels sympathy for the man who is making this sacrifice for his friend.
A sea of emotions, loathing and love, fear and pity is flowing through the minds of the audience and the tension created becomes almost unbearable. It is at this point in a film that some people cannot watch any more and cover their eyes. All seems lost and Antonio doomed.
Portia’s trap that she has been cleverly preparing throughout the scene, maintaining the anticipation of the audience is about to be sprung. She steps forward for the lines;
‘ Tarry a little; there is something else.
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.’
There is a huge sense of relief as the audience realises that Shylock has been out-witted and with such great dramatic effect. All eyes are on him to witness his reaction when he realises he will not have the revenge he seeks. The audience feels that the triumph is theirs. Shylock cannot take his pound of flesh without also taking Antonio’s blood, of which there is no mention in the bond that Shylock has no rigidly and vehemently stuck to throughout.
As he has already refused the money and demanded his pound of flesh he cannot change his mind. He can have nothing but the bond and if he sheds Antonio’s blood or takes more than one pound of flesh he will die and all his goods will be confiscated.
Portia allowed Shylock several opportunities to show mercy, to take the money before outwitting him and it makes it all the more satisfying that she has managed to do so. Shylock has to plead for his life for threatening the life of a Venetian. He is shown mercy although he showed none himself and is allowed to live. However, he must give half his good state and half to Antonio. Antonio allows Shylock to keep half of his capital if he converts to Christianity and leaves everything to Lorenzo and Jessica in his will. Shylock is left destroyed and ridiculed. It is very satisfying to see the wicked character defeated. The Elizabethan audience would particularly relish the fact that he must convert to their religion.
Throughout the scene the audience is aware of the identity of the lawyer and the clerk and the payment by Gratiano and Bassanio of their wedding rings brings more drama and tension as they have promised never to part with them.
This prepares us for Act 5 that promises some comic relief with which to reduce the emotional intensity of scene 4.