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The Merchant of Venice- Act IV Scene I - Summary

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Introduction

The Merchant of Venice- Act IV Scene I Summary The trial of Antonio in a Venetian court of justice begins. The Duke of Venice attempts to convince Shylock to let Antonio pay back Bassanio's debt but realises that this is useless as Shylock is 'A stony adversary... incapable of pity'. Shylock insists that the bond is legally binding and therefore it is his right to take what was promised him. He continually refuses to give a reason as to why he wants Antonio's flesh, saying 'I am not bound to please thee with my answers.' The Duke declares that he is wanting for a 'learned doctor' to arrive from Padua before he makes the final decision concerning this case. By the time Portia enters the courtroom, disguised as the young Lawyer, Balthasar, Antonio's situation seems desperate. When she appeals to his mercy, Shylock brushes it aside by demanding justice and revenge. He believes that the law should be followed to the exact letter. Portia uses this argument to turn the case around, pointing out that although the bond stipulates that a pound of flesh may be removed from Antonio, it bears no mention of the loss of blood. ...read more.

Middle

This therefore seems unfair on Shylock who hasn't got one impartial person at the hearing and is therefore doomed to fail. But if the courtroom is not just then the play is not just and so ceases to be a comedy. However, despite bending the rules of the court, Portia's decision is legally accurate. Shylock also made the bond under false pretences - making it easier for the audience to see him as a villain. Therefore Portia's actions can be seen to restore justice rather than pervert it. Throughout this scene, Portia demonstrates her cunning and intelligence. She first appeals to Shylock's mercy. This is a key speech in the scene, 'The quantity of mercy is not strain'd . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant There' (Lines 180-202) In this speech, Portia presents the Christian perspective that mercy is not only a part of justice, but it is it's main aspect because God shows mercy in his justice. ...read more.

Conclusion

In this scene, Portia not only releases Antonio from the bond but effectively strips Shylock of both his religion and his livelihood, leaving him unable to inflict or even threaten further damage. This fulfils Shakespeare's criteria of a comedy in that the villain must be defeated. This would not have been difficult to accept by a Shakespearean audience who would have most likely met Shylock's demise with a similar reaction to Graziano's cruel, ecstatic glee. They would not have been troubled by Shylock's forced conversion to Christianity. However, it is more difficult for a modern day audience to rejoice in Portia's success. Ultimately, Shylock's pursuit for the exact letter of the law regardless of mercy or compassion, ultimately undoes him. Yet although the court's verdict is consistent with Shylock's crimes, it follows the same rigid and severe reading of the law as Shylock. Before giving Shylock his punishment the Duke says to him that he hoped that Shylock would, 'see the difference of our spirit.' But the spirit of the Venetian proves as vindictive as the Jews. Shylock looses everything in the course of the play except for his life and a modern audience cannot help but feel sorry for him. ...read more.

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