Discuss how the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice reveals a conflict between justice and mercy.

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shakespeareguru eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Merchant of Venice has its good guys and its comic villain.  This set-up is necessary to the comic complications and tensions that provide the suspense that holds the audience's attention.  The culmination of this battle between forces for good and villainy comes in Act IV, scene i, the trial scene. The forces of good are also the forces of Christianity which, by the code under which Christians live, represent the need for mercy.  Shylock, the comic villain, and a Jew, represents the code of Old Testament justice or "an eye for an eye."

In particular, Shylock is demanding a "pound of flesh to be, by him, cut off/Nearest the merchant's [Antonio's] heart."  Portia, disguised as a "doctor of laws," pleads for mercy in one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare:

. . .it is twice blest.

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest. . . .

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.

It is an attribute to God himself:

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.

Shylock, being a Jew and not a Christian, cares not for mercy and still claims his justice.  When mercy does not succeed, Portia switches gears and still wins the court case by turning Shylock's exacting justice against him.  She says:

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.

The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh:'

Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;

But, in the cutting of it, if thou dost shed

One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate

Unto the state of Venice. . .

For as thou urgest justice, be assured

Thou shalt have justice. . .

Portia then goes on to cite a law of Venice that states that an "alien" (which Shylock is, since being a Jew he cannot be a citizen), who attempts to take the life of a Venetian citizen, must render up half of his "goods" to this same citizen, the other half going to the state.  Shylock's life, under this rule, "lies in the mercy/Of the duke."  So, being merciful, the Duke pardons Shylock's life, but awards half of his goods to Antonio and half to the state, leaving Shylock, who values his wealth above all else, a pauper.

And so, both justice and mercy prevail at this court hearing, but both prevail at the expense of Shylock, who leaves with far less than he entered into the court proceedings.


accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Certainly the keynote of the play is Portia's "The quality of mercy is not strained." It alerts the audience to what is at issue. Shylock has the right in law to his pound of flesh, and refuses the plea for mercy. He insists on justice, the law, his bond. Portia likewise refuses Bassanio's plea that she should relax the law, knowing that in the exact wording of the bond lies Antonio's salvation. Although every argument and move counts in this trial scene, the trial is dramatic rather than legal. Drama is conflict, and the trial is a context between two radically opposed attitudes to the human life which is at stake.

Portia's argument for mercy is the Christian one that no-one deserves salvation, for it is only God's mercy that can save a human soul. It does not move Shylock, who demands justice according to the law. Yet Shylock's true motive is not respect for the law, but revenge. Shylock's insistence for blood contrasts with Antonio's willingness to lay down his life for his friend, a version of the supreme Christian ideal of love. Antonio forgives Bassanio's prodigality; Shylock cannot forgive Jessica's.

It is clear with the way that Portia resolves this conflict, by upholding that the law be upheld to the precise letter, that, in a sense, although she tries arguing for mercy, because of Shylock's stubbornness, it is law that wins out, for it is the law that Portia must use to defeat Shylock. Interestingly, one the one hand, Antonio shows graciousness in his terms with Shylock, but at the same time, insisting he convert to a Christian can be seen as an incredibly cruel move.

So, although mercy is certainly a strong force in the play, and mercy to a certain extent is shown to Shylock, it is the law that "wins out" and is used to defeat Shylock.

tanvi16 | Student

In the play, there exists a conflict between justice and mercy. The protagonist Shylock demands justice since Antonio, one of the antagonists failed to pay his dues on time. As per the contract of the promise to pay, the penalty had to be borne by Antonio by parting with a pound of his flesh, which, though termed 'justice' by Shylock was quite unjust in reality. Shylock considered himself right and factual in his place since he was demanding only that which was written in the bond and was agreed upon by both the parties. However, his means of seeking justice and the condition put forth by him in the bond was inhuman and completely wrong in first place which is why mercy had to jump in and play its part. Portia( disguised as the doctor, Balthasar), Bassanio and the rest tried to persuade Shylock to have mercy on Antonio and forgive him. They even tried to lure him by promising him to pay double the amount as penalty but, all in vain. Shylock was adamant in his resolve because of which a sort of conflict brewed up between justice and mercy. Justice stuck to its position no matter how much mercy tried to plead or convince it. In the end, however, the conflict was resolved by kind of fooling justice in its own language. Portia acted smartly and told Shylock that he can get Antonio's flesh provided, he doesn't drop even a droplet of Antonio's blood on ground, which wasn't possible. She also told him that it was written in the laws of Venice that if a non-resident proved that the justice demanded by him attempted to seek the life of any citizen, then, all his wealth would be confiscated and divided between the accused party and public treasury of the state. She herself acted as the non-resident in here and proclaimed that Shylock's act was inhuman and aimed at endangering the life of a  citizen i.e; Antonio. Also, he was now liable to be hanged till death or shot dead and only Duke's mercy could now save him. This is how 'justice' and 'mercy'switched positions. Shylock, who earlier demanded justice now begged for Duke's mercy. Thus, the conflict was  resolved in the end by the blend of both, justice and mercy.

muddy-mettled | Student

Perhaps the law group might be interested in this.  When returning to the play one notes that Portia's "The Quality" speech is directed not only to Shylock but to the others: "What mercy can you render him, Antonio?"(4.1.375).  Justice is one of the virtues referred to earlier in the play:  "Your father was ever virtuous"(1.2.27).  At the party in ROMEO AND JULIET Capulet says of Romeo:  "And, to say truth, Verona brags of him / To be a virtuous and well-governed youth"(ROM1.4.180-181).  In portia's speech we find:  "It is an attribute to God himself, / And earthly power doth then show likest God's / When mercy seasons justice"(4.1.192-194).  John F. Andrews, for the EVERYMAN edition, explains "seasons" as meaning "flavors, qualifies; tempers."  Temperance is another virtue.  Andrews also notes that forms of  "seasons" also occur before and after the court scene.  Therefore, the conflict is rather how to apply and how much seasoning is needed.

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The Merchant of Venice

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