The trial of Antonio in a Venetian court of justice begins. The Duke of Venice warns Antonio, the defendant, that the plaintiff (Shylock) is "a stony adversary . . . uncapable of pity . . . [and] void . . . of mercy." Antonio declares that he is ready to suffer quietly. He knows that "no lawful means" can save him now. Shylock is called then, and when he enters, the duke says that everyone — "the world thinks, and I think so too" — thinks that he should relent at the last moment and spare Antonio, taking "pity on his losses." But Shylock is adamant; he prefers the penalty of a pound of flesh to repayment of three thousand ducats. Why? "Say," says Shylock, "it is my humor." In other words, Shylock wants the pound of flesh for no rational reason. He wants it only because of "a lodged hate and a certain loathing" for Antonio.
Bassanio then tries to reason with Shylock — but without success. Antonio tells Bassanio that he is wasting his time. He himself asks for no further pleas; he begs that judgment be quickly given. Bassanio cannot believe that his friend is serious. He offers six thousand ducats, but Shylock refuses. The duke then asks Shylock a question: "How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" In reply, Shylock cites the mistreatment of many Venetian slaves by the Venetians themselves, justified by the fact that they bought the slaves and can treat them as they please; likewise, the pound of flesh which he has "dearly bought" belongs to him, and he can do with it as he pleases. He therefore demands an immediate judgment confirming this right.
The duke declares that he is waiting for a certain "Bellario, a learned doctor," to arrive from Padua before he makes a final decision concerning this case. This matter is too weighty for one man to render a single opinion on; therefore, Shylock's demand for judgment will have to wait, and he will have to cease his demand — or else the duke "may dismiss this court."
Bassanio meanwhile tries to cheer up Antonio, vowing that he himself shall give Shylock his own life in place of Antonio's "ere [Antonio] shalt loose for me one drop of blood." Antonio, however, is without hope. He tells Bassanio to "live still, and write mine [Antonio's] epitaph."
At that moment, Nerissa enters the courtroom, dressed like a lawyer's clerk, and delivers a letter from Bellario to the duke. While the duke reads the letter, Shylock whets his knife on the sole of his shoe to the horror of Antonio's friends. The clerk of the court then reads aloud the letter from Bellario. The doctor is ill, but he has sent in his place "a young doctor of Rome," named Balthasar, whose wisdom in the law belies his youth. Bellario says that he never knew "so young a body with so old a head," and he asks the duke for his "gracious acceptance" of Balthasar in Bellario's stead.
The duke welcomes young Balthasar, who is, of course, Portia "dressed like a Doctor of Laws." Portia acknowledges that she is familiar with this case and its "strange nature," and she is equally acquainted with the integrity of Venetian law. She asks Antonio if his bond is a valid one, and he admits that it is. She then tells him that Shylock must be merciful. At this, Shylock is shocked: Why should he be merciful? Because, Portia answers, "mercy is . . . [like] the gentle rain from heaven"; mercy is "twice blest; / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes." She continues and says that mercy is an attribute of God. It is freely bestowed to temper justice, and those who grant mercy ennoble themselves, especially those people who have the power to dispense punishment and yet award mercy instead. She points out to Shylock that all people "pray for mercy" and "that same prayer" should teach us all to "render the deeds of mercy."
Her speech is lost on Shylock. He "crave[s] the law" and "the penalty and forfeit of [his] bond." He does not care that Bassanio has offered him "thrice the sum" of the bond or even "ten times o'er"; Shylock demands the penalty. Portia pronounces that Venetian law is indeed binding, and whenever decrees are established, alterations set a precedent and "many an error" has been the result. Thus, Antonio's bond is legal, and Shylock can collect the pound of flesh.
Shylock hails the wisdom of this young judge, calling him "noble," "excellent," "wise and upright." He then produces the scales on which he will weigh the flesh, but he balks at Portia's suggestion that he himself personally pay a physician to attend Antonio to see that he does not bleed to death. A judgment is a judgment, and nothing in Antonio's bond mentioned Shylock's hiring a physician. Antonio then turns to Bassanio, bids him farewell, and asks to be commended to Bassanio's "honorable wife," for whose cause the loan was arranged in the first place. He tells Bassanio to tell Portia that he, Antonio, loves Bassanio; Bassanio loses only a friend who loves him dearly. This is all, and "if the Jew do cut but deep enough," death will come quickly. Both Bassanio and Gratiano assure Antonio that they would sacrifice everything they have — even their wives — to save him. Both Portia and Nerissa — the Doctor of Law and her clerk of law — comment on this; they doubt that the wives of these loyal friends would "give little thanks" for that offer.
Impatient to proceed, Shylock makes ready to begin, but before he can carry out the sentence, Portia stops him. "There is something else," she says. Shylock is legally entitled to take a pound of Antonio's flesh — but no more. That is, Shylock may not take even a single "jot of blood." She then gives Shylock leave to begin his surgery, warning him that if "one drop of Christian blood" is shed, Shylock's "lands and goods" will be confiscated by "the state of Venice."
Shylock realizes that he has been foiled. Thus he says that he is now willing to take Bassanio's offer of three times the amount of the bond. Portia decides otherwise. Shylock shall have "nothing but the penalty" — "just a pound of flesh" — no more, no less. And if he takes even "in the estimation of a hair" more than a pound of flesh, he will die and all his goods will be confiscated. Gratiano jeers at the moneylender; now the tables are turned. Realizing that he is beaten at his own game, Shylock asks for only the amount of the bond — and Bassanio offers it — but Portia points out that all the court was witness to Shylock's refusing the money. Therefore, he can have "nothing but the forfeiture," which he can still take, but at his own peril. In addition, Portia reminds Shylock that one of the laws of Venice forbids an alien from directly or indirectly attempting "to seek the life of any citizen" of Venice. She tells Shylock that she has seen sufficient proof that Shylock seeks Antonio's life both directly and indirectly. Thus, she commands him to "beg mercy of the Duke." At this point, the duke speaks and pardons Shylock, sparing his life and adding that the penalty of the state's taking half of Shylock's goods will be reduced if Shylock evidences some "humbleness." Shylock is adamant at such a proposal: "Nay, take my life and all," he declares.
Following the duke's merciful example, Antonio says that he will take only half of Shylock's goods which are due to him (Shylock can have the other half) in trust in order to give them to Lorenzo (Shylock's son-in-law) upon Shylock's death, on two conditions: first, Shylock must become a Christian, and second, he must deed everything to Jessica and Lorenzo. Quietly, Shylock agrees to the settlement: "I am content," he says, and asks permission to leave the court.
The duke invites Portia to dinner, but she declines; she also declines Bassanio's offer of three thousand ducats as her legal fee. Both Antonio and Bassanio press Portia to take something; they are both exceedingly grateful for all she has done, and Portia finally agrees to take two tokens as a "remembrance." She asks for Bassanio's gloves, and she also asks for his ring. Bassanio pales; she can ask for anything, he says, but ask not for his ring. It was a present from his wife, who made him promise never to part with it. Portia pretends indignation: She wants "nothing else" but the ring; "methinks I have a mind to it." She tells Bassanio that he is only "liberal in offers." He is, in effect, asking her to beg for the ring — an insult. Turning, she leaves. Antonio pleads with his friend; surely the lawyer deserves the ring. At last, Bassanio yields and sends Gratiano after the lawyer to give him the ring. He then turns to Antonio and tells him that early the next morning they will "fly toward Belmont."
We now reach the dramatic high point of the play. In this scene, the matter of the "bond" reaches its crisis and its resolution: Shylock is defeated, Antonio is saved, and the lovers are free to return to Belmont; thus, Shakespeare gives us the happy ending which a romantic comedy requires.
In the introductory speeches by the duke and Antonio, we are reminded of the antithetical positions of the two adversaries. The Duke of Venice himself calls Shylock "an inhuman wretch, / Uncapable of pity," and Antonio characterizes himself as lost — "no lawful means" can save him. Sympathy surrounds Antonio, but dramatic sympathy is also structured around the solitary figure of Shylock. He is an intensely sympathetic figure here, alone in his solitude, surrounded on all sides by his enemies. This will be even more striking at the moment of his defeat.
By asking Shylock to show mercy toward Antonio, the duke provides Shylock with a final opportunity to restate his position and, dramatically, Shakespeare prolongs the suspense of whether or not Shylock will actually demand Antonio's life. Throughout this scene, Shylock is asked, both by the court and by his opponents, why he refuses to relent toward Antonio. In each case, his answers are themselves unanswerable; he "stands upon the law"; the law is a creation of those who are now asking him to break it. Shylock's principles are as good, and better, than his inquisitors; it is under their law that he has "sworn / To have the due and forfeit of my bond." However, Shylock goes beyond this and, in effect, he admits that his desire for revenge lies in the "lodged hate" that he bears toward Antonio. Although he professes to stand on the letter of the law, Shylock reveals quite clearly that his real motive has nothing to do with right or wrong, justice or injustice, but with his desire to destroy another human being — a Christian who has publicly scorned and spit upon him. This admission is important, since it figures later in Portia's plea, in her powerful "quality of mercy" speech.
Antonio knows that mercy is unlikely from Shylock, and Shakespeare tightens the tension of this scene by having Antonio beseech Bassanio to stop trying to win any sympathy from Shylock. It is no use; Shylock insists upon having justice carried out according to the law. Yet, while Shylock is demanding "justice," Shakespeare makes absolutely clear to the audience that Shylock's inhumanity, his obsession with revenge, is what motivates his demands. When Shylock says, "the pound of flesh . . . is dearly bought, is mine, and I will have it," he is not speaking of "rights" anymore; he is demanding his enemy's blood.
Tension increases further when Nerissa (as the law clerk) is announced, and she presents the letter from Bellario to the duke. Tension increases almost unbearably as the duke reads the letter and Shylock pulls out his knife and begins to sharpen it on the sole of his shoe. It is an almost melodramatic touch, giving Shylock's inhumanity powerful, visible form. Shylock now seems in complete command, secure in the knowledge that, legally, he has bested everyone in the courtroom. He, an alien Jew, in a Christian community that has spurned him, has triumphed over prejudice and has won in a Venetian court because of the binding integrity of Venetian law.
When Portia is brought on in disguise, Shakespeare sustains the tension still longer by having her question the legality of the bond — Antonio may not have agreed formally or he may have agreed to another set of conditions. Her question "Do you confess the bond?" emphasizes once more that no avenue of escape is possible for Antonio. He answers that he agreed to the bond. The "quality of mercy" speech that follows is a last plea; seemingly, Portia sees no other hope for Antonio. Thus, she confirms the "decree established," and this gives her yet one moment more to think of some new strategy. In a moment of inspiration, she asks to see the bond; she inspects it, and she discerns a flaw: Antonio's flesh may be forfeit, but nothing has been stipulated concerning the letting of blood. Thus she, like Shylock, decides to stand on the absolute letter of Venetian law: Shylock may indeed claim "a pound of flesh, to be by him cut off / Nearest the merchant's heart." She can declare this, knowing full well that Shylock's knife will never touch Antonio. This explains her surprisingly legal coldness; Portia knows exactly what she is doing. At this point, however, the audience doesn't, and this, of course, adds to the tension of the scene.
Thus she proceeds with methodical legality — until the last moment, when she says, understatedly, "Tarry a little; there is something else," words which will reverse the whole situation. Now it can be demonstrated anew that Shylock remains merciless in order to justify the punishment which he finally receives. Portia's delay demonstrates this and shows us Shylock's insistence on the absolute letter of the law, for it will be in accordance with the law that Shylock will punish Antonio. When Portia orders Antonio to "lay bare your bosom," Shylock is able to quote from the bond; "So says the bond. . . . 'Nearest his heart'; those are the very words." And when Portia humanely asks Shylock to "have . . . some surgeon . . . to stop his wounds," Shylock is appalled at Portia's lack of legalese: "Is it so nominated in the bond? . . . I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond." Clearly, Portia is leading Shylock slowly into a trap which he has prepared for himself with his reply to her plea for mercy, "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law."
At this point, the dignity which Shylock possessed at the scene's beginning and the sympathy which Shakespeare evoked for him has now gone, as he exults over Antonio's approaching death. As an avenger of past wrongs by Antonio, Shylock gained some sympathy from the audience; now, whetting his knife and anticipating with relish the moment when he will be able to use it, he becomes a butcher and loses that sympathy. All of this is necessary for the total effect of the play; this is why Shakespeare wisely makes Portia delay final pronouncements and then ingeniously begin to reveal new interpretations of absolute justice. Shakespeare is manipulating, with genius, the sympathy of the audience.
Antonio's seemingly last speech at line 263 has a dignified nobility; he declares once more his love for Bassanio; he asks him neither to grieve nor repent. At this point, the situation is a potentially tragic one, and once more Shakespeare needs to remind his audience that this play is not, finally, tragic. He achieves this at the moment of greatest tension when he allows the drama to slacken for a moment, and we listen in on the little exchange between the disguised wives (Portia and Nerissa) as their husbands declare their love and loyalty for one another; we chuckle when we hear Portia and Nerissa comment on these "last" words between Antonio and Bassanio. The "judge" and the "clerk" agree that the wives of these two gentlemen would not be happy to hear their husbands exchange such avowals of ready sacrifice of lives for one another.
The turning point of this act and of the play occurs at line 304: "Tarry a little; there is something else." Obviously, Shylock has come toward Antonio and now stands with his knife raised to strike, while the group on stage stands transfixed. Portia's voice, still calm, cuts through the silence. With Portia's pronouncement that the law allows "no jot of blood," Shylock's case is lost. He is almost struck dumb; "Is that the law?" is all he can ask. He was absolutely certain that his trust in the law was inviolate. The law that he believed to be so solid crumbles before him, and he realizes that his case is now absolutely, irrevocably reversed.
The law goes on to condemn him, reversing his position so completely that he himself is threatened with death. Shylock's last appearance before us, in total defeat, can, in some cases, depending on the actor, win back some of the sympathy lost earlier in this scene. But he is given little to say in comment upon the judgment passed upon him. Here, silence is the most powerful kind of eloquence. One can hardly imagine his next-to-the-last line, "I am content," uttered in any other way than in almost a whisper. He has been defeated — he, a Jew — in a Venetian, Christian court of law, and as part of his punishment, he has had to agree to become a Christian. This is an ultimate punishment for so orthodox a Jew; he is so stunned that he begs his judges: "I pray you give me leave to go from hence: / I am not well. Send the deed after me, / And I will sign it." This is a masterstroke of simple, understated pathos. Now, Shylock has lost everything. He has shown us, however, how hate breeds hate, and Shakespeare has demonstrated how hate is finally, ultimately, defeated. Through Shylock's extreme behavior, Shakespeare dramatizes the way in which the laws of justice and property on which society is based can be, without charity and mercy and humanity, as ferocious as the law of any jungle. This, then, rather than the legal quibbles, is what is important in this scene. There is no denying that the rule of law is necessary. But law, when it is not tempered with mercy, is, as Shakespeare vividly shows us, both inhuman and destructive.
Since this is the central scene of the play and since it turns on our interpretation of Shylock, it follows that the way we see Shylock here determines the way we see the whole play. If he is played as a near-tragic figure, the conflict between mercy and justice is to some extent obscured. Shylock is left stripped of his daughter, his property, and his religion. That seems a harsh judgment; at times, it is difficult to see Shylock as anything but a figure of pathos. We tend to agree with the nineteenth-century writer Hazlitt, who wrote that "certainly our sympathies are oftener with him than with his enemies. He is honest in his vices; they are hypocrites in their virtues." On this point, we ought to recall three things. First, for the Elizabethan audience, Shylock was not just a "characterization"; he was the "villain" of a romantic comedy, and as such, he has to be punished. Second, Shylock's money, which he had hoarded for himself, is to go to Lorenzo and Jessica, two of the play's lovers. Love and hate are thematically opposed in this play, and since Shylock is slowly revealed to be the embodiment of hate, there is a satisfying kind of justice in his riches going to a pair of lovers. And third, the court's judgment that Shylock become a Christian would have pleased the Elizabethan audience immensely. They all genuinely believed that only a Christian could achieve salvation; they would see the court's decision as a chance for Shylock to achieve salvation. Thus the judgment was imposed, quite literally, for the good of Shylock's soul.
After Shylock's exit, the play, which has, at times, come near to tragedy, and which has had, because of Shylock, an element of pathos, reverts completely to the tone of a romantic comedy. The barrier to the true fulfillment of love has been removed. It remains only for us to return to Belmont for the closing act of the play; the threats and conflicts of this act are removed and are replaced by an atmosphere of love and concord.