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Mistress of passion, sways it to the mood
Of what it likes or loathes.
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing
I bear Antonio, that I follow thus
A losing suit against him. Are you answered?
In Venice, the Court convenes for Antonio’s trial. The duke of Venice greets Antonio and expresses pity for him, calling Shylock an inhuman monster who can summon neither pity nor mercy. Antonio says he knows the duke has done all that he can to lawfully counter Shylock’s malicious intentions, and that since nothing else can be done, Antonio will respond to Shylock’s rage “with a quietness of spirit” (IV.i. 11 ). The duke summons Shylock into the courtroom and addresses him, saying that he believes that Shylock means only to frighten Antonio by extending this drama to the brink of performance. No one, the duke says, believes that Shylock actually means to inflict such a horrible penalty on Antonio, who has already suffered the loss of his ships. Shylock reiterates his intentions and says that should the court deny him his right, the city’s very laws and freedoms will be forfeit. Shylock offers no explanation for his insistence other than to say that certain hatreds, like certain passions, are lodged deep within a person’s heart. Shylock hates Antonio, and for him that is reason enough.
Bassanio, who has arrived from Belmont, attempts to argue with Shylock, but Antonio tells him that his efforts are for naught. Hatred and predation, Antonio suggests, come as naturally to some men as they do to the wolf. Bassanio offers Shylock six thousand ducats, twice the amount of the original loan, but Shylock turns down the offer, saying he would not forfeit his bond for six times that sum. When the duke asks Shylock how he expects to receive mercy when he offers none, Shylock replies that he has no need for mercy, as he has done nothing wrong. Just as the slave-owning Christians of Venice would refuse to set their human property free, Shylock will not relinquish the pound of flesh that belongs to him.
The duke says that he has sent messages to the learned lawyer, Doctor Bellario, asking him to come and decide on the matter. News comes that a messenger has arrived from Bellario, and Salarino runs off to fetch him. Meanwhile, Bassanio tries, without much success, to cheer up the despairing Antonio. Nerissa enters, disguised as a lawyer’s clerk, and gives the duke a letter from Bellario. Shylock whets his knife, anticipating a judgment in his favor, and Gratiano accuses him of having the soul of a wolf. Shylock ignores these slurs and states resolutely, “I stand here for law” (IV.i. 141 ). The duke alludes to the fact that Bellario’s letter mentions a learned young lawyer named Balthasar, and orders the disguised Nerissa to admit the young man to the court. The duke then reads the letter in its entirety. In it, Bellario writes that he is ill and cannot come to court, but that he has sent the learned young Balthasar to judge in his stead.
You will answer ‘The slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you.
The pound of flesh which I demand of him
Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine, and I will have it.
The trial scene is the longest in the play and stands as one of the most dramatic scenes in all of Shakespeare. A number of critics have raised questions about the accuracy and fairness of the courtroom proceedings: the presiding duke is far from impartial; Portia appears as an unbiased legal authority, when in fact she is married to the defendant’s best friend; and she appears in disguise, under a false name. These points would seem to stack the deck against Shylock, but if the trial is not just, then the play is not just, and it ceases to be a comedy. Thus, while Portia bends the rules of the court, her decision is nonetheless legally accurate. More important for the cause of justice, the original bond was made under false pretenses—Shylock lied when he told Antonio that he would never collect the pound of flesh. Therefore, Portia’s actions restore justice instead of pervert it.
The portion of the scene that passes before Portia’s entrance shows a triumphant and merciless Shylock. When asked to explain his reasons for wanting Antonio’s flesh, he says, “I am not bound to please thee with my answers” (IV.i. 64 ). The only answer that the court gets, ultimately, is that Shylock merely emulates Christian behavior. Just as some Christians hate cats, pigs, and rats, Shylock hates Antonio. Just as some Christians own slaves, Shylock owns a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock has the law on his side, and his chief emotion seems to be outrage that Christian Venice would deny him what is rightfully his. Shylock is not so much attacking the Venetian worldview as demanding that he be allowed to share in it. His speech about slavery is emphatically not an antislavery diatribe: he is in favor owning people, as long as he can own Antonio. In spite of itself, Venetian society is made an accomplice to Shylock’s murderous demands, and while this complicity certainly does not exonerate Shylock, it has the almost equally desirable effect of bringing everyone else down with him. Shylock’s intention is not to condemn the institution of slavery, and certainly not to urge its eradication—it is to express that his urges simply mirror those already found among wealthy Venetians, and to demand that his desires be greeted with the same respect.
The trial is not modeled on the English legal system. The duke presides and sentences, but a legal expert—in this case, Portia—renders the actual decision. This absolute power is appropriate for her character because she alone has the strength to wield it. None of the men seem a match for Shylock: Gratiano shouts and curses with anti-Semitic energy, Bassanio pleads uselessly, and Antonio seems resigned to his fate. Indeed, Antonio seems almost eager for his execution, saying, “I am a tainted wether of the flock, / Meetest for death” (IV.i. 113 – 114 ). Antonio has been melancholy from the play’s beginning, and now he has found a cause to suit his unhappiness. He may be the focus of Shylock’s hate, but he is less an antagonist than a victim. It is left to Portia to put a stop to the moneylender and to restore the comedy—something in short supply in Shylock’s courtroom—to the play.