The Merchant of Venice is a play by Shakespeare set in Venice in 1592; at this time the English looked up to Venetian’s and they were seen as very fashionable people. Venice was also the trading capital of the world as there was an increase in overseas trade and merchants became very well respected. At the time the attitude towards Jews was hostile and they were treated very badly, there was a lot of prejudice against Jews. They were seen as criminals as some Jews committed usury and they were looked down on by Christians.
The play has been set in Venice as it is about a Jewish usurer called Shylock; he is seeking revenge on a wealthy Christian Merchant called Antonio and by setting it in Venice the audience are more likely to sympathise with Antonio and see Shylock as the evil one as he is a Jewish usurer. Within my essay I will be exploring and analysing the techniques Shakespeare uses in the trial scene of his play, The Merchant of Venice, to create and build up dramatic tension for the audience.
The main plot of The Merchant of Venice is that Antonio agrees to an extreme bond; if the loan of 3000 ducats is not paid back to Shylock within the deadline Shylock can claim a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock describes the bond: ‘… an equal pound of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken in what part of your body pleaseth me. ‘ Antonio agrees to the bond: ‘Content, in faith; I’ll seal to such a bond… ‘ Unfortunately, all of his ships are shipwrecked so he is unable to pay back the money to Shylock.
Consequently, Shylock is seeking revenge on Antonio as he has been mistreated his whole life as he is a Jew and therefore he becomes inhumane with the power and control he seems to have when he becomes obsessed with taking revenge as he has this bond against Antonio. The subplot of The Merchant of Venice is focused on romance as Bassanio and Portia fall in love as he wins her in a lottery (a choice of three chests one of them allowing them to be married) created by her father.
The romance between Bassanio and Portia gives a slight relief to the tension created between Shylock and Antonio and it lightens the tone of the play distracting the audience away from the obsessive and hostile atmosphere they create. In the end the lovers have a happy, playful ending which leaves Antonio alive but alone and Shylock is punished mercilessly by Portia as he has to live the rest of his life in pain. The trial scene is the climax of the play, Shylock is becoming obsessed with the reality of taking revenge on Antonio: ‘The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, is dearly brought, ’tis mine, and I will have it… Shylock is becoming extremely impatient for his bond and he is set on taking his revenge, he is showing no mercy. In the trial scene Antonio is preparing to die: ‘… I am armed and well prepared. Give me your hand, Bassanio, fare you well! ‘ As Antonio is expecting the worst it creates dramatic tension as the audience feel the hopeless situation that Antonio is in and are willing the events of the trial to turn in his favour. Shakespeare cleverly builds up the tension, and creates suspense in the scene to keep the audience on edge.
During the trial scene the drama and irony is added with the disguise of Nerissa and Portia as they change the direction of the trial, as the events turn in Antonio’s favour. Shakespeare begins the build up of dramatic tension in the opening of the court scene with the introductory speeches. When the Duke talks about Shylock he presents him as an inhumane man with a cold heart and no mercy. He describes Shylock ‘A stony adversary… Uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy. ‘ This implies that he feel that’s shylock has no feelings and that he sees him as an opponent with not even a little bit of mercy.
This creates some tension as we are reminded of Shylock’s unwavering, remorseless character. Shakespeare also uses Antonio to create dramatic tension in the beginning of the court scene when he presents himself. He says ‘His rigorous course; but since he stands obdurate, and that no lawful means that can carry me out of his envy’s reach, I do oppose my patience to his fury… ‘ when Antonio says this it conveys the sense that he is preparing himself for the worst and he seems aware that Shylock is a stubborn man and he is expecting to die as Shylock will get what he wants by law.
This creates dramatic tension for the audience as it feels like Antonio’s death is definite as he doesn’t seem to have any hope that he will live, he is simply accepting that he will die from the start of the court scene. Shylock is a solitary figure as he is entering a trial where he is surrounded by Christians that despise him. They use his religion to isolate him; the duke calls for Shylock to enter the court: ‘Go one, and call the Jew into the court. By calling him ‘Jew’ it conveys the little respect the Christians in the court have for him and emphasises that he is completely alone. He is structured into a sympathetic character as he is completely isolated and he has no one to support him in the trial and therefore it will be harder for him to get his way and take his lethal revenge on Antonio. Dramatic tension builds up as the need for Shylocks mercy is apparent and they are pleading with him; this creates tension as it shows the desperation of the people defending Antonio as they worry for his life.
The duke is asking Shylock for mercy: ‘Glancing an eye upon his losses… Enow to press a royal merchant down, and pluck commiseration of his state… We all expect a gentle answer, Jew’ The duke is desperately trying to give Shylock a reason to have mercy, he is listing everything that Antonio has lost and hoping that this will make Shylock think differently about the situation. He is expecting Shylock to have mercy as he calls him a ‘gentle Jew’. This suspends the dramatic tension as the audience wait to receive Shylocks response.
Shakespeare extends the suspense as to whether Shylock will insist on his bond as he stalls his answer leaving the audience on edge: ‘You’ll ask me why I rather choose to have a weight of carrion flesh than to receive three thousand ducats: I’ll not answer that. But say it’s my humour, is it answered? ‘ This gives the impression that Shylock is enjoying the power he has as he is using humour to insist on his bond, he is becoming excited with the reality of receiving his bond and is playing with the Christians, leaving them on edge as they await his answer.
There is more dramatic tension as Shylock stays unsympathetic and stubborn as he shows no mercy with his responses to his questioners: ‘So can I give no reason, nor will I not, more than a lodges hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I follow thus a losing suit against him… ‘ What he says implies that he hates Antonio and he just wants him dead and his real motivation for revenge is the hatred he has for Antonio causing him to use harsh methods in order to gain his revenge.
The audience can expect this sort of behaviour as a life of ill treatment as he is a Jew is certain to turn Shylock into a cruel man; this links back to a speech Shylock made earlier in the play: ‘The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. ‘ This implies that Shylock is taking revenge on Antonio, as he says he will cause pain similar to how he has been treated but he will do the things better therefore causing more pain to bring himself more fulfilment.
Shakespeare tightens the tension when Antonio tells Bassanio that reasoning with Shylock is pointless: ‘Make no moe offers, use no further means… Let me have judgement, and the Jew his will. ‘ This tightens the tension as Antonio seems to be ready to die as he doesn’t want the waiting to be prolonged any more. Shakespeare also creates tension using repetition, Antonio says: ‘You may as well go stand upon the beach… You may as well use question with the wolf why he hath made the ewe bleat for the lamb; you may as well forbid the mountain pines. The repetition of ‘You may as well’ builds up tension as it implies that Antonio is completely hopeless and that he is preparing to die as he knows that Shylock is not shifting. This conveys Shylocks stubborn unwavering character as Antonio knows that he won’t change his mind about the bond. He is preparing himself to die and he too is becoming impatient like Shylock for the consequence to be quick and not dragged out.
At this point Shylock is becoming more impatient as he compares the revenge he is taking to the treatment of Christian’s slaves: ‘You have among you many have purchased a slave… hall I say to you, ‘let them be free, marry them to you heirs… ‘ you will answer, ‘the slaves are ours. ‘ So do I answer you. The pound of flesh, which I demand of him, is dearly bought… ‘ Shylock is implying that the treatment of Christian slaves is no different to how he wants his pound of flesh from Antonio and it is apparent that he feels it is only fair that he is to be given it as he tries to make his claim seem less irrational. This would make the audience question whether the treatment of slaves is right or not and if it is only fair that Shylock should be given his bond as it is legal.
The tension is heightened with the arrival of Nerissa who is disguised as the clerk, the audience now understand what Portia and Nerissa’s secret plan was as they were talking about it earlier; meanwhile Shylock whets his knife on his shoe. In the Elizabethan times a Christian audience would be worried for Antonio as they prepare for his death and would be angered to see the impatience of Shylock as he sharpens his knife which implies that he is becoming increasingly eager and inhumane with this revenge. The director of the film of The Merchant of Venice is Michael Radford.
He controls the tension of the court scene to add to the enjoyment of the play. Shylock keeps sharpening the knife, this builds up the dramatic tension as you can hear the sound of the knife being sharpened in the background. This creates suspense for the viewer as it is building up to the moment when Shylock will claim his pound of flesh and this keeps the audience on edge, it also reminds them of Shylocks impatience as he cannot wait to get his revenge. This gives the audience the impression that Shylock is a cruel, remorseless man who is incapable of pity as he is now extremely eager to claim his revenge.
The sharpening of his knife also conveys that Shylock is becoming quite excited about taking revenge, as well as being irritated by the waiting as he knows his rights: ‘I stand here for law’ this implies that he is confident and stubborn that he will gain his revenge in the end, claiming his pound of flesh. The film also demonstrates Shylock merciless character; Shylock watches the money drop, meanwhile the viewer questions if he will go for the money or not, but Shylock stays stubborn, he is set on claiming his revenge.
More dramatic tension is built up when Portia also arrives, disguised as a lawyer, as she states that the only moral course is for Shylock to have mercy: ‘Then must the Jew be merciful’. This creates tension as the audience know that Shylock is remorseless and set on gaining his revenge. Shakespeare uses Portia to prolong the tension as she gives a quality of mercy speech: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven… we do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us to render the deeds of mercy. Portia is implying that the quality of mercy is heavenly and that the best course of justice for Shylock would be to have mercy.
However Shylock is utterly unmoved by her speech: ‘My deeds upon my head! I crave the law… ‘He is refusing to have mercy leaving the rest of the Christian people in the trial in desperation, trying to make him change his unwavering mind. Portia creates more tension as she puts Antonio in a bad position as it all seems to be going in Shylocks favour. Portia says ‘It must not be; there is no power in Venice can alter a decree established… You must prepare your bosom for his knife… She is stating that you cannot swap the bond for money as it is a legal bond; therefore Shylock must get his way and is allowed to take his revenge.
At this point Shylock is praising this ‘judge’: ‘O noble judge! O excellent young man! ‘ It is apparent that he is very pleased that the trial seems to be going in his favour. He is becoming elated with the reality of revenge and is happy that he is being told that he is finally allowed to claim the pound of flesh. Portia then begins to manipulate the trial in Antonio’s favour as she asks to see the bond: ‘I pray you let me look upon the bond… It is apparent to the audience that she is playing with Shylock, setting a trap for him as he gets excited about the revenge when everything seems to be going his way.
No one knows exactly what Portia is doing, this adds to the tension as the audience don’t know what to expect and they do not understand why she is telling Shylock he can have his bond. This confusion and worry for Antonio in the audience adds to the build up of tension as they do not know what the end result will be, they are expecting a twist of events but they don’t know for sure what will happen, this suspense will keep them on edge as they await the final result.
The dramatic tension is being built up and prolonged as Portia delays the court: ‘Tarry a little, there is something else,’ the delay shows that Shylocks desire for revenge; he is very eager and impatient and as he keeps getting interrupted it makes him even more frustrated and impatient to get his revenge. His response to a reasonable request for a surgeon is: ”tis not in the bond’ this implies that Shylock wants to get on with it and he is becoming irrational as he wants Antonio dead.
His behaviour will affect the audience as they will have less sympathy because he is acting inhumane and irrational and his impatience is becoming obsessive and aggressive. Shakespeare is manipulating the audience as they cannot decide who to feel sorry for as the perception of the characters change throughout the trial scene. At first they might sympathise with Shylock when he is a solitary figure and is called ‘the Jew’ then they could begin to see him as an inhumane, irrational man who is becoming too obsessive with taking revenge, therefore changing the audiences mind about who to sympathise with.
After Antonio gives his poignant speech as he is prepared to die, Shakespeare uses irony and an element of humour to stall the build up of tension. Bassanio says ‘I would lose all, ay sacrifice them all here to this devil, to deliver you. ‘ This is ironic as he is saying that he would willingly sacrifice his wife, Portia who is disguised as a lawyer in the scene, to save Antonio’s life. She responds to this comment: ‘Your wife would give you little thanks for that… ‘ this hint of humour acts like an interlude that lightens the mood and suspends the build up of dramatic tension for the audience.
When Shylocks case is lost Gratiano repetitively uses mocking comments against Shylock: ‘O upright judge! Mark, Jew. O learni?? d judge! ‘ This will make the audience feel a slight sympathy towards Shylock as he is in great pain and the Christians are laughing at his punishment. The audience will either laugh along with this sadistic mockery or feel that it is a mean unnecessary action. Shakespeare uses pathos in this scene to allow the audience to hold a heartfelt sympathy towards Shylock as now the rest of the court including Portia are being irrational and merciless. Portia is being hypocritical and the most ruthless in the trial.
Although she gives a speech about the quality of mercy, she has none when she manipulates the court in Antonio’s favour allowing him to decide a harsh punishment for Shylock. Antonio delivers the punishment: ‘… He presently become a Christian… all of he dies possessed, unto to his son Lorenzo and his daughter. ‘ This example of pathos shows Antonio’s hatred of Shylock as he is using religion to cause him pain, in order to receive a sadistic pleasure from making him suffer for the rest of his life. The tone of Shylocks voice and the words he uses shows the pain he is feeling by this punishment.
Shylock has now been isolated and the way he speaks portrays his depressed emotions: ‘I pray you give me leave to go from hence. I am not well… ‘ He is using heavy mono-syllabic words in his final speech displaying his despondent feelings and reflecting his exhausted, depressed state of mind. The director of the film of the play uses background music and stage directions to make the viewer feel for Shylock; when he is ordered to become a Christian and give up all he owns the director uses slow, sorrowful music in the background making the viewer empathetic towards Shylock.
Shylock also collapses to the ground in complete shock and desperation as he hears his punishment and makes a sound like a wounded animal. This presentation of Shylock makes the viewer pity and sympathise with him as we observe his desperate frustration with the situation, we view him as a tragic figure as his extreme desire for revenge has resulted in a life of grief and depression. During the Elizabethan times the punishment of Shylock at the end of the scene would have been a delightful result. Christians were extremely prejudiced towards Jews at the time so they would not sympathise with Shylock as he loses everything.
As he is asked to convert to Christianity, they would feel delight as in that time it would have been thought that ‘the Jew’ was punished rightly and that he deserved it. However a 21st Century audience would have a slightly different reaction; although some may feel that Shylock deserved to be punished for his inhumane behaviour, a modern audience would be more sympathetic for him as there is more acceptance of different religions now and we would also remember all the trouble Shylock has received that would have driven him to that irrational behaviour.
In general, a modern audience would be more shocked by the punishment than an Elizabethan one. Shakespeare cleverly builds up the tension in the trial scene and then he moves straight onto the final scene which is very romantic and humorous, Jessica says: ‘In such a night did young Lorenzo swear he loved her well… ‘ The audience are almost distracted by this change of atmosphere as everything in the play seems resolved as it finishes on a lighter note.
There is also sense of relief at the end as the audience have been building up to the trial scene throughout the whole play, as it was the climax of the play the audience are now more relaxed as there is less suspense. However, the audience are not fully distracted by the happy and romantic conclusion of the play, although everything seems to be resolved the audience will remember the harsh consequence that Shylock received and the way Portia became merciless and irrational in the trial scene.
These miserable events will linger in the audience’s mind after the play even though the final scene was a happy, romantic one. In conclusion, Shakespeare successfully creates tension in the trial scene by stalling and prolonging the build up of tension which effectively leaves the audience in suspense and keeps them on edge throughout the scene as they struggle decide who to sympathise with in the end.