The Merchant of Venice

by William Shakespeare

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Describe Portia's trial scene in The Merchant of Venice.

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The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice is important in several ways. Its resolution offers the characters in conflict, Shylock and Antonio, a way out of a difficult situation. Had Shylock been allowed to claim his literal pound of flesh, Antonio would have died and Shylock most likely would have been prosecuted and convicted of murder. The scene also provides a vehicle for Portia to shine as an intellectual and as a persuasive speaker. By going to bat for her beloved’s friend in the first place, she demonstrates her commitment to Bassanio and those he cares about.

Formulating a convincing, logical argument and speaking eloquently further demonstrate her personal worth. Portia is not merely a female who follows the law—such as by obeying the terms of her father’s will—but an independent thinker who can interpret the law. Bassanio can clearly see how lucky he will be to be married to such a person, but he must later prove his worth by recovering the ring. Shakespeare also takes full advantage of the scene by giving Portia one of his best monologues. He makes her the mouthpiece for a host of noble sentiments, advocating for a concept of justice that always takes compassion into consideration.

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If you are analyzing Portia's character, then here are several attributes to discuss based on the trial scene.

1. Portia is clever and self-assured: She thinks nothing of entering the male world of justice and business.  While she must disguise herself as a man to participate in the trial, rather than view that as an insult, Portia finds humor in it because she knows that she is outwitting the men at their own game.  Similarly, while many of the Venetians seem to fear Shylock, Portia toys with him and lectures him on mercy.

2.  Portia is either compassionate and ironic: Her "Quality of Mercy" speech which appears in the trial scene demonstrates a willingness on her part to provide Shylock with an out if he chooses to take it.  Going into the trial, Portia knows that she has the upper hand, but rather than immediately identifying the egregious flaw in Shylock's contract, she offers him an opportunity to show mercy just as he would want it shown to him.  In addition to illustrating Portia's compassion, the trial scene (especially the "Mercy" speech) exemplifies Portia's ironic nature.  She warns Shylock about the irony for insisting on the letter of the law--that eventually someone will insist on the letter of the law when dealing with him--and in doing so, presents a lesson to the whole court about the irony of their justice system.

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