Merchant of Venice, Act 4


But on to Act 4 and the major scene of the play, as I think. The duke is apparently inclined to mercy, but constrained by what law and the commercial status of Venice requires. His only hope is persuasion of Shylock, who remains steadfast in his desire for vengeance against Antonio. I wonder what Antonio means by saying he is the “tainted wether of the flock, meetest for death” as if he’s the one to be properly sacrificed — for what? Bassanio’s successful love, Venice’s commercial position and its laws? Antonio’s position is always somewhat mysterious.

In reading the play, we know that Portia and Nerissa are the law clerks sent by Bellario. And earlier, in 3.4, we heard Portia’s plan of cross dressing, and of wanting to appear the more manly of the two. But there may be a moment of wondering on the audience’s part about the identity of the emissaries from Bellario. Rather a splendid question on Balthasar’s part when he/she asks which is the merchant, which the Jew. They both must look equally down. But the “quality of mercy” speech give the full argument against Shylock and his sense of things. It’s basically a theological argument, but clearly enunciates a view of life, and stands perhaps as the heart of the play. (It too was part of our high school memorization.) Shylock’s obdurate position allows Portia to play him like a fish, but Bassanio and Gratiano too, as the scene goes on for some hundred lines, before Portia’s “Tarry a little,” and the trap is sprung. Gratiano is given a chorus-like position of jeering at Shylock, which frees up Bassanio and the others. Gratiano’s jeering seems to allow the appearance of magnanimity in the Duke and Antonio. Is it? I think it’s meant to be seen as that, and I’ve generally felt that the play is coming at this point to a jousting of ideas. Why is everything given to Lorenzo and Jessica, and why is Shylock ordered to become a Christian? Seems like the ideas of the play may have taken over. Or are we to assume overreaction on Antonio’s part? In any case, Shylock seems broken. And Gratiano is allowed one more sneer. The “ring plot” comes at this point, and this may be meant as a tempering, or countering, of the pound-of-flesh plot. In any case, the whole act has taken place in Venice, where things are rigorous and difficult.


Yes, the judgment scene is the climax of the play, if not the center. It’s the point of maximum tension. In Aristotelian terms, it’s also the peripeteia.

Yes, the Duke may be inclined to mercy. But he asks for mercy from Shylock, and on top of that asks him to “forgive a moiety of the principal.” That seems like a lot to ask. Shylock could simply say no, and ask that the contract be enforced, to the letter of the law. (That could set up a “letter of the law” vs. “spirit of the law” debate.) He doesn’t have to give a reason — and could have stopped there. But he goes on to his “lodged hate” and “loathing.” Why? Maybe because he sensed that the Duke was asking too much of him. Maybe because of the way the Duke’s appeal ended: the last word is “Jew,” and it could be spoken with contempt by an actor (or heard by Shylock as contempt).

We get some vile Jew-bashing from Antonio, and (for the rest of the scene) from Gratiano, who seems to me more than just a Greek chorus in his repeated jeers and taunts. We were told back in 1.1. that Gratiano “speaks an infinite deal of nothing,  but here nobody calls him on it. It’s maybe the ugliest part of the play.

When Shylock refuses the offer of 6000 ducats, the Duke again appeals for mercy, implicitly invoking the Lord’s Prayer — “forgive us our trespasses, [insofar] as we forgive those who trespass against us” — and anticipating one of the points Portia makes. It’s a bit odd that the Duke, who is in charge of the trial, after trying to settle the matter himself declares that he has asked for advice from Bellario, who is to “determine” the matter.

When she comes in, it’s indeed a great moment when she asks “which is the merchant . . . ?” A director might have her address her question “Is your name Shylock?” to Antonio, and have Shylock answer “Shylock is my name.” When she says “Then must the Jew be merciful” do we hear two meanings, one of them “Surely the Jew will be merciful,” while Shylock only hears “the Jew is obliged or compelled to be merciful.”

Her famous “quality of mercy” speech is prompted by Shylock’s question: “On what compulsion .  . .” She asks that mercy “season” justice. Shylock still refuses. Portia still seems to be looking for a solution, asking whether Bassanio is able to “discharge the money.” But then she seems to reverse herself, declaring that even though the money is ready to be repaid she will now demand the letter of the decree. If she is really looking to “mitigate” the harshness of justice, why does 

she refuse the deal that Bassanio re-offers? She now seems as hard-hearted as anybody on the stage, demanding full “justice” on Antonio — and then on Shylock. Gratiano is temporarily silenced, and then when balance shifts he again bays repeatedly for revenge on Shylock. By contrast, Antonio, ready for death, focuses on his love for Bassanio, and here again a director could suggest that this is more than homosocial “love.”

One could say that Shylock, by re-insisting on the letter of the law, traps and condemns himself. Or that Portia traps him. But to what end does she trap him? To teach him a lesson, and if so what lesson? She becomes the embodiment of the law. Even after, as you say, she springs the trap, all could be resolved peaceably. Shylock says he’ll take the offer and Bassanio hands him the money. But Portia, the spokeswoman for mercy, again refuses the deal. And she’s not done yet: “the law hath yet another hold on you.”

For years I read this scene as essentially comic, Portia in good-humored even-tempered control and making Shylock squirm. But I think you could read it more darkly: Portia relentlessly pursues Shylock. She refuses a resolution a third time when Shylock says ‘just give me the principal’ and Bassanio hands it to him. And she never reproves the vile Gratiano.

Portia preaches mercy, and she teaches mercy — both the Duke and Antonio moderate their demands. But in practice Christian mercy turns out to be almost as harsh as justice: Shylock, having been threatened with death because of a strained literalist interpretation of the law, is permitted to live, but must give up half his goods, give the rest of his goods when he dies to his faithless daughter, and give up his religion! As a defeated Shylock leaves the stage, he is hounded by Gratiano’s final jeer. Are we in the audience supposed to jeer with him? And as you rightly ask, why should Lorenzo and Jessica be rewarded with Shylock’s goods?

Portia then slips away, but not without asking for the ring. It’s as if she is  now trying to trap Bassanio, just as she earlier trapped Shylock. In the short second scene of act 4 there is even a civil exchange between the disguised Portia and the vile Gratiano. Could she not, even in disguise, have reproved him for his vehemence? (The second scene sets up the “ring plot’, and makes clear that it could have been avoided if Bassanio had not sent Gratiano with the ring to catch up with the disguised Portia.)

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell