Act 4 Scene 1 is the dramatic climax to the play. Analyse how Shakespeare achieves dramatic effect in this scene. (Pay attention to context, characterisation, action, use of language, aspects of staging and any element of contemporary importance.)
The Merchant of Venice is a comedy play written by William Shakespeare in Elizabethan times. Antonio who’ is a merchant of Venice agrees to lend his friend Bassanio money so he is able to go to Belmont to woo Portia. All Antonio’s ship where out at sea so he had to seek money elsewhere which is when he became bound to Shylock. Shylock is a Jewish usurer and made his money by lending it out and charging interest. When Antonio approaches Shylock for a loan, he makes him promise to forfeit a pound of flesh if he is unable to pay back the money within three months. Shylocks then finds out that his daughter, Jessica had eloped with Lorenzo who is a Christian. Which doesn’t please Shylock as there’s a dispute between Christians and Jew, for Jews were seen as evil in Elizabethan times.. Bassanio, accompanied by his friend Gratiano depart for Belmont, once they arrive Bassanio falls in love with Portia and chooses the right casket but their happiness is interrupted by the news of Antonio’s ship not arriving so the bond goes to court.
We are first introduced to shylock in Act I Scene 3 where we learn of his usury and a lot about his character and intentions. He is considered an alien in Venice as he dresses differently, comes from a different back ground and culture. We also learn of Shylock’s hatred towards Christians and Antonio, before he even says a word to Antonio he lets the audience now of his hatred towards Antonio. ‘How like a fawning publican he looks! I hate him for he is a Christian.’ Shylock also shows an element of belligerence in his refusal to ever forgive the Christians. We also see how devious and cunning he is in the way he tells Antonio he wants to be friends with him and saying the bond is just a ‘merry sport’. By getting Antonio to agree he has made him indebt, no just with money but his life. Although Antonio is very naive in the way he accepts the bond, knowing that they aren’t exactly the best of friends and being so confident in thinking that he will be able to pay him back on time.
Perhaps Shylock feels justified in seeking revenge upon Antonio as he blames him for all his problems and is bitter about the way Antonio has treated him the past. As he has humiliated Shylock in public by spitting on him in public and calling him names such as ‘dog’ and ‘cutthroat jew’. Shylock tells the audience how he hopes for revenge Antonio for his own humiliation and for the Jews who have suffered for a long time because of Christians. So through the bond he will be able to bring justice to himself and other jews. When Jessica runs away with a Christian this makes him more revengeful towards Antonio ‘I’ll plague him, I’ll torture him, I’m glad of it’. In the scenes directly before the trial scene, Act 4 Scene 1 we really learn how revengeful Shylock is. In the way he repeats ‘I will have my bond’ Showing how fixed on what he wants and how he is unwilling to show mercy.
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The trial scene takes place in Venice which has very much been portrayed as the mens world. Where businesses transactions have taken place and all the hatred have taken place. Where as Belmont is seen as the women’s world full of love and peace. The main contrast between Venice and Belmont is that one is where money is made and the other is where money is spent. Another contrast is in the way Shakespeare interacts the cities by moving from one to the other in each scene. When we hear of Shylock’s hatred and the bond the tension builds up. Then it moves to Belmont to a world of romance. A big contrast is in the courtroom scene and the opening of scene 5 which takes place on a romantic night in Belmont.
Shylock and Antonio ended up in court as a result of Antonio’s ship not returning in time. Antonio is brought before the Duke to stand trial for failing to pay off his debt to Shylock so he now must give a pound of his flesh to Shylock like said in the bond. The Duke is biassed towards Antonio even though he’s meant to be impartial, but can’t find any legal way to realise him from the bond so he tries to persuade Shylock to change his mind by appealing to his better nature. Shylock replied that he has already sworn by his Sabbath that he would have his pound of flesh from Antonio. Shylock admits that he can’t give a clear reason why he wants his bond ‘Can I give no reason, nor I will not.’
Shylock is stubborn and bitter as he is unwilling to show mercy or accept money which means a lot to him. Bassanio offers his life over Antonio’s and Portia’s money but he refuses bother of these. In a way he’s cornered like an animal as everyone is against him even though the law is on his side. Maybe he’s legal right but morally perhaps not. It’s an inhumane act. He argues if the refuse to give him his bound it would ruin the reputation of the Venice as a city of international trade. We see on set Shylock sharping his knife on the sole of his shoe which is very dramatic. It brings out a lot of different emotions in the audience: shock that he’s about to do it, sympathy for Antonio, gladness that at Shylock is getting justice and the suspension in whether its going to be carried through.
We see a contrast in Antonio though, he’s resigned. By accepting his fate we can see how he’s noble being. ‘I do oppose my patience to his fury, and am arm’d to suffer with a quietness of spirit the very tyranny and his rage.’ He barely speaks throughout the scene and when people stand up for him he tells them not to bother. Obviously Antonio is dedicated to Bassanio and their friendship means a lot to him, to go through all this and be willing to die for him.
Nerissa enters disguised as a man with a letter from Bellerio who is a lawyer who was meant to come support Antonio’s case. The timing of Nerissa entering was precise as the audience were beginning to accept the fact Antonio was about to die. Bringing the anticipation up of what was going on. As the letter explains he is unable to come and has sent another lawyer, Portia who is again disguised as a man. They were disguised as men as a woman wasn’t accepted in the court of law. The dramatic importance of the women dressing up as men would of been lost in Elizabethan times as women weren’t allowed to act. First Portia begins to plea mercy ‘That in the course of justice none of us should see salivation’ saying that if no one was merciful none of us would be saved. As Shylock is set on his bond, he argues that he is right according to the law. She then asks if anyone can settle the debt but since Shylock refuses the money she says there is nothing she can do about it ‘There is no power in Venice can alter a decree establishment.’
Portia then decides she must side with Shylock as he politically correct. She lures him into a false sense of security by praising him and supporting him. Here the audience will see this as a little strange as she had come to court to help her husband’s friend out and then sided with the opposition. At this point the audience would be confused and eager to find out what’s going on. By coming to court and dressing up as a man it shows how much she loves her husband as she’s never met Antonio before. The audience also know’s that Portia prejudices and racist from the way she treats the Prince of Morocco in Act 1. In away Shakespeare shows how men and women are similar by giving her some of the characteristic of a typical man in Elizabethan times, strength and intelligence.
Now the tension is high and the audience will be anxious by the Portia’s and Shylocks actions, and perhaps annoyed at the way Antonio is not even willing to fight for his life. To relieve the tension Shakespeare adds a bit of comedy by Bassanio saying:
‘Antonio, I am married to a wife
Which is as dear to me as life itself;
But life itself, my wife, and all the world,
Are not with me esteem’d above thy life:
I would lose all, ay, sacrifice them all,
Here to this devil, to deliver you.’
This is ironic as Portia his wife is in the same room and has come all this way to help Bassanio’s friend without knowing much about him. But has done it as an act of love to Bassanio and he’s saying he would give it all up for Antonio which is amusing and adds humour.
Shylock is now ready to cut the pound of flesh when Portia interrupts by saying ‘Tarry a little’ At which point the audience would be at the edge of their seats waiting for the deed to be done and then she stops him bringing the climax to a height on what is she going to say next? She then defines a flaw in the wording of the bond. Which would stun the audience and make them impatient to what is going to happen now. The bond only gave him permission to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh but not any blood. Making it impossible for Shylock to have his bond.
The tactics Portia uses are devious just like Shylock as she waited until he was about to cut the flesh until she said. Either that or she only just saw the flaw in the bond. She tells him he can have a pound of flesh but no more no less and not a single drop of blood and if he does Venice will confiscate his goods. Here Shylock is shocked and can only come up with ‘Is that the law?’ Their conversation is interrupted constantly by a bit of comedy from Gratiano repeating the words of the jew before Portia told him he must not shed any blood. ‘O upright judge...O learned judge...Mark, Jew...a second Daniel’ again relieving the heightened tension.
Shylock then begins to say how he’ll settle for three times the money of the bond but Portia insists that Shylock can only have what he demanded; since he refused the chance of taking the money before. ‘The Jew shall have all the justice; soft! No haste: he shall have anything but the penalty.’ He can have his flesh but nothing else and if he does he dies and again his goods will be confiscated. Gratiano still out bursting with words of Shylocks. So Shylock then decides he’ll just have the original price, Bassanio has it ready but again Portia says he can’t have it, as he refused it open court.
He begins to leaves, shocked by what had just happened and tries to withdraw the case but Portia stops him by saying ‘Tarry Jew’ her language that she speaks to Shylock has changed since she pronounced the flaw. Which is a subtle dramatic effect. Everyone in the courtroom talk to Shylock using Thee and Thou which is used when talking to some of lower status characters. Even the Duke who’s suppose to be impartial uses this language towards Shylock but speaks to Antonio in You and Your. When Portia first enters she’s the only one who speaks to Shylock with respect and uses You and Your which helped lure him in to a false sense of security. After she tells him about not shedding any blood her language changes and her words become more disrespectful ‘Tarry Jew.’
She now begins to state how Venice had a law that if any foreigner tried to kill a Venetian directly or indirectly, the foreigner had to forfeit all that he/she owned. Half of their property would go to the victim they plotted against and the other half to the state. In addition the life of the foreigner would be at the mercy of the Duke. Again this would be another shock for the audience and maybe they would think Portia was carrying it out a bit far. As Shylock had suffered enough from the Christians and may feel it was a bit injustice but on the other hand he had shown no mercy towards Antonio. So all the time throughout this scene we are faced with two strongly justified arguments which give the audience mix emotions.
The Duke pardoned Shylock before he begged for mercy but Shylock argued that since all his property would be taken away, he would rather die as his property is his life.
‘Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house, when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live’
Antonio then comes in Shylocks behalf and asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half of his wealth. He then asks to keep the half and keep it as a form of inheritance for Jessica and Lorenzo. However Antonio requests that Shylock should convert to a Christianity and all he owns goes to Jessica and Lorenzo once he dies. Shylock can’t do anything but accept. Again the audience would have mixed emotions about how fairly Shylock was treated. Maybe he deserved to forfeit all that he had but have to become a Christian when Jews are very religious people is a bit over the top and unfair. As he could never be a true Christian as he doesn’t believe in the faith. So there is an element of just desert and sympathy towards Shylock.
To relax the mood Shakespeare and to get the interest of the audience back, the Duke ask Antonio and Bassanio to show their thanks to Portia. They offer Portia her own money which is ironic and amusing and tires to get Bassanio to give her the ring which she made him promise never to take off no matter as it is a symbol of there eternal love. He refuses to give her it and then she leaves without it, as she was testing his love for her to the utter most. He calls it a ‘trifle’ which is ironic as Portia gave it him as a sign of their love and it takes him three comments before he says the real reason in why he doesn’t want to give it up. Once she had left Antonio manages to persuade him to give it to Portia. Which shows how is love for Antonio is greater than his love for Portia, also as he was willing to give it all up for Antonio.
Although the play was written to be comical, humour has changed throughout the years and isn’t what we would comedy today. The issues to do with racism still exist today, although I do feel it isn’t as strong as in the Elizabethan times but it is still a big issue nowadays. The attitude that Shakespeare paints with Shylock is one of the reason why racism is still around today. One thing that has really changed and is no longer a relevance in today’s society apart from in the developing countries of the world is that women are no longer restricted in what they can do as much. There is still many people though who think of women as the weaker sex.
Act 4 Scene 1 is most definitely the dramatic climax to the play as in a way it unites the two cites Belmont and Venice by bringing the women into Venice. Also it unites some of the sub-plots with the main plot, the bond. The scene is unpredictable in the way you think one things going to happen but Shakespeare cleverly entwines the flaws at unexpected times, when you think it’s all over. I do feel though some of the dramatic effects loose their impact as it isn’t a believer able story. Maybe for the time it was but the realisticness is lost today.