The Disenfranchised and the Martyr: Merchant of Venice part 2

Smirke, Richard, 1778-1815; 'The Merchant of Venice', Act IV, Scene 1, the Trial Scene
The Merchant of Venice’, Act IV, Scene 1, the Trial Scene. Richard Smirke (1778–1815)

Courtroom Scene: the Exercise of Power

Antonio, Shylock, and Portia’s diverse objectives and power relations unite in the courtroom and counter each other: Portia wants to save Antonio’s life, Antonio wants Bassanio to appreciate his immense sacrifice, and Shylock wants his vengeance. In what he thinks is his ultimate sacrifice, Antonio paints himself as the great tragic hero. He makes it quite clear that he is not only ready for death, but also that he is dying for Bassanio. He assures the crowd early in the scene, “I am a tainted wether of the flock,/ Meetest for death” and reminds Bassanio, “You cannot better be employed, Bassanio,/ Than to live still an write mine epitaph” (114-15, 117-18). As he says, not only is it appropriate that he die, but Bassanio will also remember him well (hopefully as his beloved friend who sacrificed his life). He begins his dramatic ‘final’ speech, “but little I am armed and well prepared” (262). He speaks in beautifully even iambic pentameter, only breaking meter to grasp Bassanio’s hand, speak dramatically in the third person about his death, and to express his love: “whether Bassanio had not once a love” (263, 272, 275). This is the beautiful, guilt-inducing speech of a tragic romantic hero, dying for his cause. He reminds us what that cause is: “grieve not that I am fall’n to this for you….he repents not that pays your debt” (264, 277). He is dying so that Bassanio can live happily debt-free with his new wife.

Antonio (Jamie Ballard) menaced by a vengeful Shylock (Makram J. Khoury) in The Merchant of Venice 2015. Photo by Hugo Glendinning © RSC

In this light, Antonio’s motivation for summoning Bassanio to court becomes two-fold. On one hand, he wants to see his dear friend before he dies; but, on the other hand, Antonio needs the proper witness to his martyrdom.[2] In light of his death, Antonio clearly wants everyone in the courtroom to recognize his sacrifice for the greater good.

While Antonio is espousing his discourse of martyrdom, we see an interesting dynamic appear between Portia and Shylock. They both enter the court, expecting to exert their power over the proceedings by using the law. For Shylock, the law is his safe place in an environment that loathes him. He wants his pound of flesh and he knows that he has to provide no other justification to attain it other than his ownership. He reminds the crowd, “I am not bound to please thee with my answers….The pound of flesh which I demand of him/ Is dearly bought. ‘Tis mine and I will have it.” (65, 99-100). Shylock’s ultimate social power, which he sought in the beginning, lies in his legal dominance over Antonio. Portia draws attention to the specific aspect of the law that gives Shylock power when she asks, “which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?” (172). Of course, as Shylock is wearing his gabardine, Portia can distinguish between the two men. If the lawyer—the embodiment of the law—is pointedly blind to social identities, the law is blind and universal. Shylock is in a prime position to exert his power and achieve his objective. It is unfortunate that Shylock’s claim to power is self-destructive and short-lived. Shylock’s desire is counter to Portia’s objective, and cannot survive such an obstacle because his decision to pursue the bond was made emotionally, dragging him into this “losing suit.”shylock-scales

Portia, however, is prepared with answers—or a means to find an answer—and a rational clarity. In order to achieve her dual objectives, saving Antonio and asserting her own power, she has a prepared strategy. First, she tries an appeal to mercy, hoping she can sway Shylock with a promise of salvation. Portia puts too much faith into this first strategy. Shylock is too adamant, like Antonio was in Act 1, scene 3, to listen to an appeal from a different religion than his own. Next, she offers him money. She knows the money will most likely fail to sway him, having heard Salerio and Jessica confirm, “that he would rather have Antonio’s flesh/ Than twenty times the value of the sum” (3.2.285-86). Clearly, Portia has not designed plan B as well as plan A. Her “quality of mercy” monologue was beautifully poetically even, with elevated similes, the illustration of a king, and caesura. The meter was broken only to juxtapose the “gentle rain from Heaven” and the “force of temporal power” and to emphasize the prayer for mercy (183, 188, 198-99). Portia’s next appeal (plan B) has no poetic majesty. She speaks in short pleas: “be merciful. Take thrice the money. Bid me tear the bond” (231-32). She is floundering; but, she also finds a third appeal within the bond itself. She notices that Shylock continues to invoke the law; thus, she begins to play into his insistence, encouraging his focus on the law by validating his claims, and setting up a test of his insistence upon the word of the bond (the surgeon not listed in the bond). Right before he cuts into Antonio, Portia stops him with an insistence upon the word of the bond and offers “more justice than [he] desir’st”: “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood./ The words expressly are “a pound of flesh” (314, 304-305). Shylock has to forfeit the bond or have his property taken away, as is the punishment for “shedding one drop of Christian blood” (308). Portia has won, illustrating her great intelligence and her mastery of the law—especially in respect to how she was subordinate to the law under her father’s will.

Rachel Pickup as Portia. Shakespeare’s Globe. 2015

She does not stop there, however. Before she is able to execute her third plan to stop Shylock, Bassanio cries to Antonio, “life itself, my wife, and all the world/ Are not esteemed above thy life” (282-283). In this moment, Portia realizes that Antonio’s love of Bassanio is more threatening than she assumed when she heard the letter and that more than just power is at stake in this trial. The trial also involves her marriage. The informal ring contract is suddenly in jeopardy. Then, Portia responds to this insult in a manner that mirrors how Shylock responded to Jessica’s flight (her strategy to sway Shylock was also very similar to his in 1.3: an appeal to religion, an appeal to reason, and a plea to the extreme). Like Shylock, Portia goes one step too far in anger. She is merciless, what she warned Shylock against as if almost to say, “you want law? I’ll give you law.” The court suddenly becomes a cruel lesson in mercy and Antonio, who has been waiting righteously for his chance to sacrifice himself, offers Shylock the ultimate punishment out of a misguided sense of justice: conversion to Christianity. In the end of the scene, Shylock has not only failed to achieve his objective, but he has also been crushed by his adversaries.

Portia has achieved her objectives, saving Antonio’s life and asserting her power in the court, but her marriage—and, therefore, the power guaranteed to her by the ring—is threatened. Portia has the chance to test Bassanio’s resolve when he offers payment. Seeing the ring, she decides to ask only for that. Thankfully, even though Portia insists with increasing intensity, Bassanio refuses to give the ring away. Portia is assured that her promise—and her power—is safe. However, Antonio intervenes because he values himself higher than Portia (which Bassanio has permitted) and Bassanio immediately gives up the ring. What Portia feared came true: Antonio created a wedge between herself and her husband, who appears to have betrayed her.

Final Scene: Resolution

Merchant of Venice. 2005. Dir. Michael Radford

Portia’s autonomy and Antonio’s sacrifice come to fruition in the final scene of the play. Though the action of the play seems to end with Shylock’s punishment and Antonio’s freedom, the objectives of the characters are left unattained. We need the last scene to sort out the characters’ prevailing desires and give the play a happy—if troubled—ending. Ironically, Bassanio’s surrender of the ring gives Portia complete autonomy because the power and property that she promised with the ring are returned to her. Thus, act 5, scene 1 begins with Portia still on stage, alone, having just received Bassanio’s ring from Gratiano and sent Nerissa to get her husband’s. Jessica enters, in a moment of scene overlap, and the two women contemplate their losses –Portia’s husband and Jessica’s father. Lorenzo enters, to see Jessica in the same position as we first encountered Portia over the caskets in 1.2. Portia holds up the ring as Lorenzo remarks, “the moon shines bright,” foreshadowing the impact the ring discovery will have on the romantic atmosphere of Belmont (1). Portia exits, and Lorenzo and Jessica begin to name the famous unrequited tragic lovers of antiquity. This analogue links the resolution of the romantic plots with their introduction, which reinforces the idea that this scene will be a restart for the two married couples, albeit altered to incorporate Antonio. Like Nerissa in 1.2, Lorenzo wants to cheer up Jessica, thus he pulls her into a game of allusion and teasing. Furthermore, the atmosphere they create of laughter tinged by tragic love sets the tone of the dramatic resolution.

Stephano and Launcelot enter, notify Jessica and Lorenzo of Portia, Nerissa, Bassanio, Gratiano, and Antonio’s return, and exit. Lorenzo and Jessica sit, staring at the “stars;” Lorenzo rises when the musicians enter, and delivers his second monologue more as philosophical teachings than loving comforts. His final warning is also the last we hear of Shylock: “The man that hath no music in himself….The motions of his spirit are dull as night….Mark the music” (83-88). With this ominous warning, Portia enters. When Lorenzo compares the harmony of immortal souls to music, he echoes a statement Portia makes in court: “[mercy] is an attribute to God himself” (4.1.193). If we mirror the staging of those two moments, this parallel will be even more obvious. It is clear, then, that the music of Portia’s soul is disordered because of her angry treatment of Shylock and her frustration with Bassanio. This is not going to be a scene of mercy. Furthermore, Portia enters to discover that “nothing is good…without respect” (99). She sits, dignified in her melancholy and declares that nothing is objectively good, further echoing the court scene when she says “how many things by season seasoned are” (“mercy seasons justice”) (107; 4.1.195). Bassanio and his enourage enter in a flourish and Portia is forced to rise from her seat. Bassanio introduces Antonio, who steps forward to part the couple. There is a moment of tension before Portia welcomes him as he recognizes the woman who had usurped his place and she recognizes the man who drove a wedge into her marriage. The tension in the welcome is suddenly broken by Gratiano’s “By yonder moon, I swear” (142)

Now the ring plot starts to be resolved. As each couple begins to argue, Antonio scuttles away to occupy the same seat Portia used. Jessica and Lorenzo also return to their earlier seats. Portia stands amidst the arguments, almost as if she is directing the quarrels. She does hold ultimate power in this scene, like a queen, but not the previous “queen o’er herself,” but rather like Queen Elizabeth I: strong, independent, ruthless. She anticipates Bassanio’s pleas and mercilessly responds, having the benefit of knowing what he could possibly say. Then, she gracefully turns it into the threat of cuckoldry. She had this planned from the beginning (she hints at it when she says, “let me not be light/ For a light wife doth make a heavy husband” (129-130)).

Rachel Pickup as Portia and Daniel Lapaine as Bassanio. Shakespeare’s Globe. 2015

When the argument has reached its peak, Antonio can no longer bear to see his friend in pain and relinquishes his newly won position as Bassanio’s sole companion in order to make the ultimate sacrifice: give his soul for his friend to be the bridge between the couple. Bassanio is pleading with Portia: “I never more will break an oath with thee” and Portia begins to respond with another “no,” but Antonio interrupts her. “I,” he stands “once did lend my body for his wealth,” he says as he crosses to Portia. He kneels when he says, “I dare be bound again/ my soul upon the forfeit….”(249-53). Antonio offers himself, as he always has, in order to maintain power by being needed. This intention, however, does not impact Portia. She sees him offer himself, which triggers her mercy. She is able to escape from her fury, unlike Shylock. In this moment, she recognizes that Antonio will always be the third wheel in her marriage; she begrudgingly accepts it. Portia helps Antonio stand, and kisses him on the cheek. She hands him the ring, signaling to Nerissa that the game is over: the men have suffered enough. When she returns the ring, however, she makes no promises about ownership. All the rings symbolize for Portia and Nerissa is forgiveness for a broken oath. Again the center of power, Portia begins to explain how she and Nerissa had the rings. She hands out letters, doling out happiness as she did justice in the court scene. The arrangement of the characters in this moment should mirror their arrangement when Portia arrives in the court. This linking analogue draws our attention to a light motif of the play: Portia ex machina. In the final moments, Antonio takes Portia and Bassanio’s hands and brings them together, quite literally bridging the relationship. Portia looks up to see the rising sun and pulls Bassanio close. She encourages them all to go in. They begin to exit. Portia and Bassanio pause, and she offers her other hand to Antonio. They go off together as a trio.

Portia has resolved her marriage and autonomy with assistance from Antonio, Antonio has his seat of power by Portia’s consent, Bassanio has his money and his wife, and Lorenzo and Jessica and Gratiano and Nerissa are seemingly content with their marriages; yet, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity—the antithesis of everything he is. So, on Portia’s line “it is almost morning,/ And yet I am sure you are not satisfied with these events at full…” instead of a lighting change to a warmer “day” lighting, the outline of a looming gothic cathedral appears. Shylock enters. Portia’s line, then, becomes both an invitation to Bassanio and the other lovers and a challenge to the audience. “There’s one more thing you’re going to watch,” she says. The lovers exit the stage. Shylock is alone. Then, Jessica runs back on to fetch a scarf or other object she has left behind. She sees Shylock and Shylock sees her in the same way that Bassanio saw Portia in Act 1, scene 1. If the source of Jessica’s melancholy at the beginning of 5.1 was unclear, now it is emphasized. Jessica leaves. Shylock is again alone, but now his baptismal font is brought on by several priests. An ominous Gregorian chant begins, but the lights go down and the show ends before we actually see Shylock’s baptism. Shylock is not granted a happy ending.

Rachel Pickup and Dorothea Myer-Bennett in The Merchant Of Venice at Shakespeare’s Globe. 2015

The staging of the final scene evokes the two battles that take place over the course of the play, between Portia and Antonio and the Christian protagonists and Shylock. Portia and Antonio manage to use each other’s objectives to achieve their own, respectively. Shylock, conversely, is unfairly caught up in the power plays of Portia and Antonio, and his search for power, acceptance, and contentment is disrupted. Through these separate character arcs, we get a sense that the “story” the play is trying to tell is one of ruthless power, achieved through law, money, and guilt. The illustrates that traditional power is achieved through cold reason—as Portia succeeds in subduing Shylock through the law and Shylock dominates Antonio through the explicit terms of his contract. A purer form of power, however, is achieved through emotional manipulation and circumstance. Antonio, who single-handedly reunited Portia and Bassanio, and not only is debt-free, but also controls the final disposition of the funds, ensuring that they come to reside in Christian hands, hold power because of his ability to understand and manipulate people and situations. In the end, though Portia has achieved autonomy, Antonio has the most power.

[1] This is also the best explanation to expand the implications of the scene overlap we explored. Not only does Bassanio see Portia in his mind’s eye, but as she sits between the two men, she literally disrupts their bond. If we had Portia on the other side of Antonio, this would be closer to what Antonio sees his desired role as, the constant bridge between Bassanio and Portia.

[2] Shakespeare also needs Bassanio to be in the courtroom for the full dramatic effect. Without Bassanio, Antonio would not have the opportunity for such a beautifully tragic speech. Addressing his final words to his dear friend reinforces the sacrifice he is making and also feeds Antonio’s tragic ego, for, as he claims at the beginning, “I hold the world but as the world, Gratiano:/ A stage where every man must play a part,/ And mine a tragic one” (1.1.77-79).


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