The following excerpt is adapted from my essay “A Time for Bonding: Commerce, Love, and Law in The Merchant of Venice,” which may be downloaded at this link.
Act IV, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice involves the climactic court scene in which Shylock and Antonio confront one another, in person, before Portia, who will determine Antonio’s fate.
At this point Portia has already revealed to Nerissa, her lady-in-waiting, her plan to “wear my dagger with the braver grace / And speak between the change of man and boy / With a reed voice, and turn two mincing steps / Into a manly stride, and speak of frays / Like a fine bragging youth.” She and Nerissa will cross-dress, in other words, and once “accoutred like young men” will act as though Portia is a doctor of laws, or a law clerk, administering justice and adjudicating disputes in the Duke’s Venetian courtroom.
Bassanio attempts to settle the case on Antonio’s behalf by tendering Shylock double and then triple the amount of the original loan, but Shylock unmercifully insists on exacting a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia appears to support Shylock, saying, “[T]here is no power in Venice / Can alter a decree established: ‘Twill be recorded for a precedent, / And many an error by the same example / Will rush into the state: it cannot be.” Although she says that Shylock’s “suit” is “[o]f a strange nature,” she submits that “in such rule that the Venetian law / Cannot impugn you as you do proceed.”
Praising Portia as a “Daniel come to judgment,” Shylock demands that a judgment be entered against Antonio immediately: “When [the bond] is paid according to the tenour. / It doth appear you are a worthy judge; / You know the law, your exposition / Hath been most sound: I charge you by the law, / Whereof you are a well-deserving pillar, / Proceed to judgment: by my soul I swear / There is no power in the tongue of man / To alter me: I stay here on my bond.” Antonio himself conveys a preference for swift judgment: “Make no more offers, use no farther means, / But with all brief and plain conveniency / Let me have judgment and the Jew his will.”
Portia readies the others for the judgment by telling Antonio to “prepare your bosom for [Shylock’s] knife.” That the bond calls for the pound of flesh to be exacted “nearest [Antonio’s] heart” draws attention to the metaphorical implications of the judgment and the plural meaning of the bond: it is not just the contractual relationship but the potential for friendship that is about to be carved apart.
Just before the judgment is to be perfected, Bassanio and Antonio profess their love for one another. Portia then explains to Shylock—turning his literalism against him—that the judgment calls for the removal of a pound of flesh but “no jot of blood.” If any blood should be drawn, then Shylock must forfeit his lands and goods to Venice. There being no way to cut a pound of flesh without drawing blood, Shylock finds himself in a precarious situation. Portia tells him that
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender’s life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.
In which predicament, I say, though stand’st;
For it appears, by manifest proceeding,
That indirectly and directly too
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
With these words, Shylock is defeated. The Duke pronounces that, as a consequence of the legal proceeding, Shylock shall render half his wealth to Antonio and half to Venice, but Antonio pleads that he will forego his share if Shylock converts to Christianity. The Duke concedes; Shylock acquiesces. The litigation comes to a close.