Merchant of Venice Summary and Analysis
Act IV, Scene One
Antonio is brought before the Duke and the magnificoes of Venice to stand trial for failing to pay off his obligation to Shylock. The Duke is upset about the penalty, a pound of Antonio's flesh, but cannot find any lawful way of freeing Antonio from his bond. Shylock enters the court and the Duke tells him that all of the men gathered there expect him to pardon Antonio and forgive the debt.
Shylock replies that he has already sworn by his Sabbath that he will take his pound of flesh from Antonio. He is unable to provide a good reason for wanting to punish Antonio in this manner, other than to say, "So can I give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio" (4.1.58-60).
Bassanio then comes forward and offers Shylock the six thousand ducats as repayment for the loan. Shylock tells him that even if there were six times as much money offered to him, he would not take it. The Duke asks Shylock, "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend'ring none?" (4.1.87). Shylock responds that he is doing nothing wrong, and compares his contract with Antonio to the Christian slave trade. He tells the Duke that he does not demand that the Christians should free their slaves, and therefore the Christians should not demand that he free Antonio.
The Duke threatens to dismiss the court without settling the suit brought by Shylock if Doctor Bellario fails to arrive. Salerio tells him that a messenger has just come from Bellario, and Nerissa enters dressed as a man and informs the Duke that Bellario has sent a letter to him. Shylock whets his knife on his shoe, confident that he will receive his pound of flesh.
The letter from Bellario recommends a young and educated doctor to arbitrate the case. The Duke asks where the young doctor is, and Nerissa tells him that he is waiting outside to be admitted into the court. The Duke orders him to be brought in, and Portia enters dressed as a man, pretending to be a doctor named Balthasar.
Portia tells the Duke that she has thoroughly studied the case and then asks, "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (4.1.169). Antonio and Shylock both step forward, and Portia asks Antonio if he confesses to signing the contract. He does, and Portia then says that Shylock therefore must be merciful. She delivers a short speech on mercy, but Shylock ignores it and demands the contract be fulfilled. Portia then asks if no one has been able to repay the amount, but since Shylock has refused the money there is nothing she can do to make him take it. She comments that she must therefore side with Shylock.
Shylock, impressed that Portia is supporting his case, says, "A Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel!" (4.1.218). Portia rules that Shylock has the right to claim a pound of flesh from next to Antonio's heart according to the bond. Antonio's bosom is laid bare and Shylock gets ready to cut. Portia asks him if he has a surgeon ready to stop the bleeding once he has taken his pound of flesh. Shylock says, "I cannot find it. 'Tis not in the bond" (4.1.257).
Just as Shylock is about to start cutting again, Portia says that the bond does not give him permission to shed Antonio's blood. The laws of Venice are such that if any Venetian's blood is shed, all the goods and lands of the perpetrator may be confiscated by the state. Shylock realizes that he cannot cut the flesh without drawing blood, and instead agrees to take the money instead. However, Portia is not willing to back down and instead only gives him the pound of flesh, further saying that if he takes a tiny bit more or less he will be put to death himself. Shylock, unable to comply with this stipulation, decides to withdraw his case.
Portia tells Shylock to remain in the court. She says that Venice has a further law which says that if any foreigner tries to kill a Venetian, the foreigner will have half of his property go to the Venetian against whom he plotted, and the state will receive the other half. In addition, the life of the foreigner will be in the hands of the Duke, who may decide to do whatever he wants to. Shylock is forced to kneel on the ground before the court, but the Duke pardons his life before he can beg for mercy.
Shylock instead asks the Duke to kill him, saying, "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" (4.1.369-373). Antonio intervenes on Shylock's behalf, and asks the Duke to allow Shylock to keep half of his wealth. He further offers to take care of the half he was awarded as a form of inheritance for Jessica and Lorenzo. The only requirements Antonio puts on his offer are that Shylock must convert and become a Christian, and further that he must give everything he owns to Lorenzo upon his death.
Shylock, wretched and having lost everything he owns, tells the court that he is content to accept these conditions. The Duke leaves and tells Antonio to thank the young doctor who has saved his life. Bassanio and Graziano go to Portia and thank her profusely, and Bassanio offers the young doctor anything he wants. Portia decides to test her husband's trustworthiness, and asks him for the engagement ring, the ring which she made him vow never to part with. He refuses, and Portia and Nerissa leave. However, at Antonio's urging, Bassanio takes off the ring and gives it to Graziano, telling him to take it to Portia and invite her to dinner that night at Antonio's.
Act IV, Scene Two
Portia gives Nerissa the deed by which Shylock will pass his inheritance to Lorenzo. She tells Nerissa to take it to Shylock's house and make him sign it. At the moment Graziano catches up with the two women and gives the ring to Portia. She is surprised that Bassanio parted with it after all, and Nerissa decides to test Graziano in the same way. Nerissa takes the deed and asks Graziano to show her the way to Shylock's house.
Shylock's reasons for wanting to kill Antonio come across as very arbitrary and obscure. He compares his desire to kill Antonio with "Some men there are love not a gaping pig, / Some that are mad if they behold a cat" (4.1.46-47). He follows this with the statement, "So can I give no reason, nor I will not, / More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio" (4.1.58-60). This inability on Shylocks's part to give a concrete answer as to why he wants to kill Antonio can only be explained by understanding the doubling between Shylock and Antonio.
This doubling of Shylock and Antonio takes place through the way they use money and family. Antonio starts the play unable to make his money breed because he takes no interest. He further has no wife or children and therefore emerges as an impotent character. Antonio reveals in Act Four what sort of person he represents: "I am a tainted wether of the flock" (4.1.113). The "wether" is a castrated male sheep, thus directly stating the fact that Antonio is unable to breed. Shylock starts the play on the opposite extreme, able to make his money breed with interest and his family breed through Jessica. However, it is Antonio who convinces him to not take interest on this particular bond, and it is later Antonio whom Shylock accuses of allowing Jessica to escape. Thus for Shylock, Antonio represents the man who made him impotent as well. His hatred towards Antonio can thereby be explained. It is further irony that in this act Antonio makes Shylock convert to Christianity, thus removing even that distinction between the two men. In essence, the destroyed Shylock at the end of the play is very similar to the melancholy Antonio in the beginning.
Portia adds to this sense of doubling when she arrives in the court. She asks, "Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?" (4.1.169). Indeed, given the confusion so many people have with the title, it is often this very question which is asked. Scholars have tried to attribute her question to blind justice, arguing that Portia does not want to show any favorites. However, on an Elizabethan stage she would be able to recognize Shylock immediately from his distinctive dress.
The essence of doubling is reinforced even more with the double exclusion of the two men at the end of the play. Antonio, having received half of Shylock's wealth, essentially takes over for Shylock by using Shylock's money. Scholars have debated about the nature of the "merry bond" between Shylock and Antonio. Some have suggested Shylock meant to circumcise Antonio, others think he meant to make Antonio take over his place. The fact that Shylock accepts a Christian condition of taking no interest is supposedly offset by the fact that if Shylock wins, Antonio must act Jewish.
Another interesting interpretation deals with why Antonio must stand trial at all. In the Bible Paul said that Jewishness is an internal condition, not external. This implies that Shylock is Jewish not because he was born that way, but because he acts that way. Thus Antonio's mistreatment of Shylock violates this explanation of Jewishness by despising Shylock because of his external features. It is this sin for which Antonio is judged.
Throughout this play there is also the concept of the scapegoat. The scapegoat was used as a way of purging a town of its sins by heaping them onto the unfortunate animal instead. The town would drive one goat out of town and sacrifice another. Both men fit this description in The Merchant of Venice, with Shylock clearly driven out of society and Antonio representing the goat about to be sacrificed.
One of the great ironies of this play is where Shylock calls Portia, "A Daniel come to judgment, yea, a Daniel!" (4.1.218). Daniel was the biblical judge of Susanna, a woman accused of inchastity by the Elders. The story is famous because Daniel rules in Susanna's favor, thus rescuing her. In addition to freeing her, he then further convicts the Elders. Shylock's mistake is that he is premature in calling Portia a Daniel, because he is the one who represents the Elders, and Antonio signifies Susanna. This inversion comes only a few lines later, when Portia not only frees Antonio, but convicts Shylock of attempted murder.
The relationship between Antonio and Bassanio comes to the forefront in this section. Antonio can literally be seen as a lover of Bassanio, willing to die for him (4.1.260-274). This creates the conflict between Portia and Antonio, a conflict she is willing to test by demanding that Bassanio give her his ring. The fact that Bassanio parts with the ring for Antonio's sake, as does Graziano, implies that Bassanio chooses Antonio over Portia. This of course is unacceptable, as is seen in the next act where Portia severally chastises Bassanio for loving a man more than he loves her.
The rings have a further meaning though. They are given by Bassanio and Graziano as a token of respect and friendship to people they deem to be men. Thus the ultimate symbolism is that the rings are given to friends who are also their wives. This fusion of friendship and marriage is an unusual one, and serves to strengthen the relationship between the couples.
Merchant of Venice Essays and Related Content
- Merchant of Venice: Essays
- Merchant of Venice: E-Text
- Merchant of Venice: Questions
- Merchant of Venice: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- William Shakespeare: Biography
- Merchant of Venice Summary
- About Merchant of Venice
- Character List
- Summary and Analysis of Act 1
- Summary and Analysis of Act 2
- Summary and Analysis of Act 3
- Summary and Analysis of Act 4
- Summary and Analysis of Act 5
- About Shakespearean Theater
- Related Links on Merchant of Venice
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Author of ClassicNote and Sources