The Merchant of Venice Act IV, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis
by William Shakespeare

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Act IV, Scenes 1-2: Summary and Analysis

Act IV, Scene 1
New Character:
The Duke of Venice: highest authority in Venice

Bassanio and his attendants are back in Venice and wait with Antonio in the presence of the Duke to discover the fate of the merchant of Venice. Shylock enters the court, and the Duke makes a personal appeal to him to not only spare Antonio’s life but also, in light of the merchant’s recent losses at sea, to reduce the amount of the debt. But Shylock will have none of it, demanding that the bond be executed. When questioned on his motives, Shylock responds that he simply hates Antonio and is not obliged to have any particular justification. Bassanio offers Shylock twice the amount of Antonio’s debt, but the latter remains firm. Shylock reminds the Duke that it is necessary to uphold the law in order to maintain Venice’s good standing in international trade.

The Duke declares that he will make no decision until he hears from Bellario of Padua, who he has asked to come decide the matter. Nerissa enters, dressed in men’s clothes, posing as a messenger from Bellario. She gives the Duke a letter, which he reads while Gratiano and Shylock bicker. The Duke reveals that the letter recommends a young doctor (lawyer) to the Venetians to help decide the case. The Duke sends for the man while the letter is read to the court.

This “man” is actually Portia, disguised as a lawyer. She questions Shylock and Antonio on the particularities of their case, and asks Shylock if he would be merciful. He refuses, of course. Bassanio, offering to pay the debt twice over, asks the disguised Portia if they might bend the law in this particular case. Much to Shylock’s delight, however, she declares this cannot be, for it would set a dangerous legal precedent in Venetian law. Portia asks Shylock if he’ll take three times the amount of the debt and spare Antonio’s life, but he refuses to budge. She decrees that the bond must be adhered to. Antonio thus steels himself for death.

Before Shylock can start slicing away, however, Portia points out that although he is perfectly entitled to Antonio’s flesh, he has no claim to spill any of the merchant’s blood. Moreover, should he do so, his “land and goods/ Are by the laws of Venice confiscate/ Unto the state of Venice” (ll. 309-311). Shylock is dismayed by this news and seeing no way to obtain Antonio’s flesh without bloodshed, asks for the money instead. Portia prevents Bassanio from handing over the money, however, insisting that justice must be served. She points out, however, that Shylock will be subject to execution if he takes more or less than a pound of flesh.

Realizing that his sinister jig is up, Shylock attempts to slink away with only the original 3,000 ducats. Portia won’t allow this, however, as he has already “refused it in open court.” Shylock sees he is trapped and is prepared to leave court empty-handed. But Portia produces another law, decreeing that if any foreigner “by direct or indirect attempts/ …seek[s] the life of a citizen,” he loses half his goods to the citizen, the other half to the state, and his “life lies in the mercy/ Of the Duke…” The Christians take great delight in this, and the Duke spares Shylock’s life though confiscates his wealth.

Embittered, Shylock asks that he be killed, as he cannot sustain himself without his goods. Antonio intercedes, however, and asks the Duke to pardon the state’s portion of the fine, in exchange for the following conditions: Antonio must receive half of Shylock’s goods to use in trust for Lorenzo and Jessica; Shylock must become a Christian; and he must will all his possessions upon his death to Jessica and Lorenzo. The Duke agrees to this arrangement, as does Shylock, who has little choice. Shylock then pleads illness and hobbles away from the scene a broken man.

The Duke requests that Portia dine with him, but she begs off, claiming she must return to Padua. The Duke leaves. Bassanio and Antonio offer to pay the disguised...

(The entire section is 2,092 words.)