Last Updated on December 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717
The Duke and other wealthy members of society enter, along with Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano, and Salerio. The duke expresses his condolences to Antonio for having come up against a pitiless individual such as Shylock. The duke has done everything in his power to talk Shylock out of collecting his pound of flesh, but Antonio is ready to receive his punishment.
Shylock enters, and the duke asks if Shylock plans to change his mind and show mercy like a proper human being. Shylock responds that he has sworn by the holy Sabbath that he will collect his bond, and he will not be swayed. His reasons for wanting to collect it are his own, but the contract stipulates a pound of flesh, and he plans to see the contract through. He does not feel that he needs to explain his reasons to the court; it is simply his preference, and preferences cannot be rationally explained.
Bassanio begins arguing with Shylock, claiming that he must have some better reason, but Antonio stops the argument because Shylock has proven to be unwavering. He says that it is as useless to argue with Shylock as it is to ask the ocean to shrink or to ask trees to stop waving in the wind, and so he has resolved to accept his punishment. Bassanio then offers six thousand ducats to Shylock, which he refuses. Shylock asks why he should show any mercy, given that the pound of flesh is his own property. Others show no mercy to their slaves or animals because these things are their property—why, he asks, should he not treat Antonio’s pound of flesh any way he wants? Thus, he demands justice.
Before making a decision, the duke says that would like to consult Bellario, a legal expert from Padua. Bellario’s clerk has just arrived, and Bassanio tells Antonio to keep up hope. Bassanio even volunteers to give up his own flesh and bones before Shylock will have Antonio’s, but Antonio says that Bassanio must live to write his epitaph.
Bellario’s clerk enters, but it is in fact Nerissa disguised as a legal clerk. She gives the duke a letter as Shylock begins sharpening a knife on the sole of his shoe. In a bit of wordplay, Bassanio tells Shylock that he is sharpening the knife on his soul rather than his sole, and asks if any prayers could change his mind. When Shylock denies his plea, Bassanio delivers a tirade about how animalistic Shylock’s soul is and claims that he deserves to die. Shylock tells him that he is wasting his breath.
The duke then tells the court that Bellario, who is ill, has recommended a legal expert named Balthazar to replace him. In the letter, Bellario explains that he has studied with Balthazar and commends Balthazar’s intelligence. Portia then enters disguised as Balthazar. She asks Shylock and Antonio to identify themselves and then comments on how strange the case is. She asks if Antonio is guilty, which he affirms. She then claims that Shylock must be merciful, and he asks her to explain herself.
Portia states that mercy is a virtue beyond mere justice. Mercy is what saves souls, and it is beyond royalty or legality. She recommends that Shylock stop pursuing justice, for if he does, Venice will have to allow him to collect his bond. Shylock states that he craves the law over mercy, and Portia asks if Antonio can pay back the loan. Bassanio speaks up, stating that he is willing to pay back whatever it takes to save Antonio; he beseeches the duke to break the rules slightly for this righteous cause. Portia states that the duke has no power to do this, and Antonio praises her for her wisdom.
Portia then asks to see the contract. Upon reading it, she agrees that Shylock is entitled to Antonio’s flesh, but she asks him to take the money Bassanio offers and show mercy. He refuses, so she tells Antonio to bear his chest and ready himself for the knife. She further calls for a surgeon to stop him from bleeding to death, but Shylock reminds her that this is not in the contract. Antonio asks for Bassanio’s hand and asks that he not blame himself or be sad. Many men become poor and live on, into old age, broken. This contract will allow him to avoid that.
Antonio passes on his well wishes to Bassanio’s wife and bids goodbye. Bassanio says that he would be willing to give up his marriage for Antonio’s life, and Portia replies that his wife probably wouldn’t appreciate such an offer. Portia gives Shylock permission to begin cutting Antonio’s flesh. Shylock readies his knife, but then Portia stops him, noting that the contract stipulates only flesh, not blood. Should he shed any blood while taking his flesh, the court has the right to seize Shylock’s property. In this way, she is ensuring that justice is met to the word of the law.
Shylock then says that he will instead take the money that was offered earlier, but Portia counters that the only way for Shylock to get justice is to see his contract through. She then commands him to go through with his collection of flesh but reminds him that he may not spill blood. She adds that if he takes any more or less than exactly a pound, he will be killed and his property confiscated. Gratiano celebrates the lawyer’s wisdom
Knowing that Portia’s command is impossible, Shylock asks again for his money, which Bassanio attempts to give. Portia stops Bassanio, stating that Shylock has asked for the penalty to be carried out as precisely as possible. She is only attempting to uphold justice. Shylock asks if he can have his original three thousand ducats back, and when he is refused, he attempts to leave.
Portia asks him to stay, however, because there is now another legal issue at hand. He has indirectly attempted to kill a citizen of Venice. By law, then, one half of his property should go to the offended party, and the other half should go to the state; the duke may determine whether or not the offending party shall keep their lives. Therefore, she suggests, Shylock should beg for the duke’s mercy. Bassanio interjects, saying that Shylock should ask for the mercy of a noose to hang himself with.
But the duke, as an example to Shylock, states that he will show mercy, and while half of Shylock’s money must go to Antonio, he may reduce the state’s monetary sentence to a smaller fine. Shylock, in defeat, says that they might as well take his life since they are taking his livelihood, so Portia asks if Antonio may also show mercy to Shylock. Antonio is willing to give up his half of Shylock’s wealth, but in return Shylock must leave Jessica and Lorenzo all of his belongings in his will and convert to Christianity. Shylock agrees to sign a contract with these stipulations and leaves.
The duke invites Portia to dinner, but she says that she must immediately leave for Padua. Before she leaves, the duke suggests that Antonio give a reward to his savior. Bassanio thanks her deeply and offers her the ducats owed to Shylock, but she refuses, saying that she is satisfied with her work in delivering Antonio from death. When Bassanio insists on giving her something, she asks for Antonio’s gloves and the ring that she gave Bassanio. He calls the ring a trifle and would be ashamed to give it as a gift, but she insists. He eventually explains that his ring was a gift from his wife and that she made him promise never to give it away, but Portia tells him that if he explained the circumstances, his wife would forgive him. The disguised Portia and Nerissa leave, and Antonio convinces Bassanio that he should have given up the ring, considering all that Balthazar did for them. Bassanio gives the ring to Gratiano, and instructs him to chase after Balthazar to give him the ring.
Nerissa and Portia, still disguised, are on their way to deliver a deed to Shylock. They are pleased with themselves and plan to reach Belmont before their husbands get back. Gratiano enters, gives Portia the ring, and invites her to dinner on Bassanio’s behalf. Portia accepts the ring but declines dinner and then asks Gratiano to escort the disguised Nerissa to Shylock’s estate. Nerissa tells Portia that she will try to get Gratiano’s ring as well. Portia leaves, and the disguised Nerissa accompanies her unaware husband to Shylock’s.
A number of important ideas appear in act 4, chief among them being the division between mercy and justice. While justice is often seen as a positive idea, Portia makes the case for mercy over justice, especially in her speech about the divine qualities of mercy. Had Shylock shown mercy, it is likely that he would have walked away with double or triple the loan that he had initially given Antonio. While Shylock has previously suggested that revenge is a right, mercy is portrayed as the superior principle; indeed, Portia assigns it divine qualities.
Additionally, Act 4 shows the extent of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendship and further suggests that their friendship is unusually close or perhaps of a romantic nature. Thus far, Bassanio and Antonio have been close, but in act 4, Bassanio is willing to give his own life and his marriage away if only Shylock were to spare Antonio. As Antonio resolves to die by Shylock’s hands, he bids Bassanio to return to his wife and “Say how I loved you, speak me fair in death; And, when the tale is told, bid her be judge / Whether Bassanio had not once a love.” The fact that he refers to himself as “a love” suggests that there may have been some kind of intimacy shared between them. Later, as Portia attempts to test Bassanio’s love by taking the ring, Bassanio refuses. It is Antonio who convinces him to give up the ring, suggesting that Antonio still holds some sway over Bassanio’s romantic decisions.
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