How does Shakespeare create tension in the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice?

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Shakespeare- The Merchant of Venice

How does Shakespeare create tension in the trial scene of the Merchant of Venice?


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.

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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 ...

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