Discuss the themes of law, religion, and justice in Act IV, Scene 1 of The Merchant of Venice.
This scene takes place in a court of law. Shylock calls upon the court for justice and insists that his bond with Antonio be redeemed. Shylock says, “I stand for judgment.” He insists that he get a pound of Antonio’s flesh and nothing else. He will not provide doctors nor accept money because it is not “nominated in the bond.” The duke and Portia appeal to Shylock's sense of compassion. Portia praises mercy over justice: “in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy.” Despite Portia's pleas, Shylock will not be moved.
Portia manages to free Antonio by interpreting the law as strictly as Shylock does. She points out that the contract does not allow for “One drop of Christian blood” nor for an iota more or less than one pound of flesh. When Shylock attempts to recant, she uses his own reasoning against him: “Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.” Portia also points out that his attempt on Antonio’s life is punishable by death and confiscation of his goods.
Antonio and the duke “forgive” Shylock and take only half of his goods and force him to convert to Christianity. Shylock had hoped that, if nothing else, the law could give him justice. The citizens of Venice, who taunted him when his daughter stole from him and married a Christian, certainly hadn’t. As a Jew, Shylock is not equal to Antonio in the eyes of the law. Portia refers to him as an “alien” and to the Christian Antonio as a “citizen.” Justice, the law, and religious identity are inextricably intertwined in this scene.