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Merchant of Venice Commentary - Act IV.

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Act IV. Scene I. - Venice. A Court of Justice.

The Duke of Venice attempts to convince Shylock to let Antonio pay back Bassanio's debt. Shylock refuses, threatening the Duke that if he ignores their agreement, Venice will lose credibility as a place for merchants...

Portia, disguised now as a man, defends Antonio, winning his life, through the technicality defense that Shylock can take only a pound of flesh and no more, a clearly impossible task. Furthermore she argues that Shylock has conspired to murder, an offense that is punishable by asset confiscation and death in Venice. A compromise is reached whereby Shylock must become Christian and give half his assets to Jessica when he dies.

Back in Venice, things don't look good for Antonio. He has forfeited the debt and Shylock wants justice. Shylock is unlikely to show mercy easily, the Duke commenting that Shylock is "A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram of mercy" (Lines 4-6).

The Duke attempts to appeal to Shylock's sense of "human gentleness and love," (Line 25). Shylock, however will have none of it; he wants his justice and he wants it delivered by the court, reminding the Duke that "If you deny it [Shylock's pound of flesh from Antonio], let the danger light / Upon your charter and your city's freedom" (Lines 38-39).

Shylock explains that he would rather have, "A weight of carrion flesh than to receive / Three thousand ducats:" (Lines 41-42).

To the Duke questioning his motives for the pound of flesh, Shylock explains that he can offer no reason other than "a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I follow thus / A losing suit [for Antonio] against him" (Lines 60-62).

Bassanio pledges six thousand ducats for his friend, "For thy [your] three thousand ducats here is six" (Lines 83-84). Shylock will not be deterred from his revenge: "If every ducat in six thousand ducats / Were in six parts and every part a ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond" (Lines 85-87).

The Duke intercedes asking, "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" (Lines 87-88). Shylock replies that since the Duke and court all have slaves with which they can do as they please, so too, can Shylock of Antonio, since his right to him, like that of using slaves has been "dearly bought;" (Line 100).

Shylock reminds the Duke of his obligation to uphold the law commenting that, "If you deny me, fie upon your law! There is no force in the decrees of Venice. I stand for judgement: answer; shall I have it?" (Lines 101-103).

Seeing no other way to stall time, the Duke replies that, "Upon my power I may dismiss this court, / Unless Bellario, a learned doctor, / Whom I have sent for to determine this, / Come here [arrives] to-day" (Lines 103-107).

The Duke is brought a letter from the eminent and well regarded Dr Bellario. It explains that he cannot make it, but that instead, he will send a very learned colleague of his in his place. Nerissa, disguised as Portia's clerk, arrives, "dressed like a lawyer's clerk." Portia later arrives "dressed like a doctor of laws."

The Duke asks Portia if she is familiar with the nature of the dispute. She answers that she is. She claims that Shylock must be merciful, claiming that the quality of mercy is "twice bless'd; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:" (Lines 186-187). Shylock disagrees, demanding his justice.

When Bassanio pledges twice the sum owed, Portia explains that "There is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established:" adding that this case will form a precedent (Line 218). Portia explains that since the bond is forfeit, "the Jew may claim / A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off / Nearest the merchant's heart" (Line 231).

This shocking advise by Portia (still disguised as a man) overjoys Shylock no end and Portia implores Shylock to be merciful and take "thrice [three times] thy money offer'd thee [to you]" (Line 226). Shylock will not and demands a verdict. Portia implores Shylock to have a surgeon on hand to stop the bleeding.

Shylock replies that it is not in the contract. Says Shylock, "I cannot find it [the surgeon provision]:'tis [it is] not in the bond" (Line 263).

Antonio resigns himself to the worse (Portia, the doctor of laws appears to have just taken Shylock's side) and Bassanio explains that he would be happy to lose his wife: "I would lose them all, ay, sacrifice them all, / Here to this devil [Shylock], to deliver you" (Lines 287-288).

Portia comically replies, "Your wife would give you little thanks for that, / If she were by to hear you make the offer" (Lines 289-290).

Gratiano makes a similar statement to which his wife the disguised Nerissa replies, "'Tis well you offer it behind her [Nerissa's] back; / The wish would make else an unquiet house" (it is just as well you make this offer behind her back. If she knew of it, there would be no end of trouble), (Line 294).

Portia makes her judgment. Since the "bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;" (the bond gives you no right to blood), the words only refer to the flesh, Shylock may have his pound of flesh if he draws no blood (Line 307).

This is impossible. Shylock cannot have his bond.

Secondly, as Portia explains, it is an offense to take the life of any citizen of Venice directly or indirectly. The demand for the pound of flesh qualifies.

As such, the state can have half Shylock's assets, the other half going to the citizen in question and Shylock may be hanged at the Duke's discretion or will...

A compromise is however reached. Antonio suggests that Shylock not lose half his assets to the state, and that the other half of his assets should be given to his daughter upon his death. Shylock is spared death and must become a Christian, a verdict all involved can live with.

The scene ends with a grateful Antonio and Bassanio. The Duke asks Portia to have dinner with him but Portia politely turns the Duke down, saying she must leave Padua tonight (Lines 402-405). Similarly, Portia politely refuses Bassanio's offer of "Three thousand ducats," which was the sum originally due to Shylock (Line 412).

Bassanio politely insists that Portia whom he does not recognize take some gift from them in remembrance and appreciation. She insists on his wedding ring. He refuses, he was told by his wife never to surrender it following his marriage.

"Good sir, this ring was given me by my wife; / And, when she put it on, she made me vow / That I should never sell nor give nor lose it" Bassanio explains (Line 443). However Antonio later talks Bassanio into giving away the ring. This he does, giving it to Gratiano to give to Portia.

Act IV. Scene II. - The Same. A Street.

Portia ensures that Shylock will sign a deed making the verdict binding. Gratiano meets Portia and gives her Bassanio's ring.

Nerissa tells Portia that she too will get the ring of her husband (Line 13). Portia decides to make both men regret their rash action (giving away their rings), (Line 16).

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