One of the most central issues in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is that of the antagonism between the Jews and the Christians. The unconscious, inborn dislike of cultures which jeopardise our way of life.
Ever since people have left their homelands to settle in other places there has been conflict between different cultures. So, in the play, Antonio, Bassanio, Gratiano and many more of the Christians feel resentment towards Shylock the ‘alien’. This is partly because of the trap that he has led Antonio into and partly because he is different.
This seemingly unaccounted for dislike is shown particularly by Shylock who comments:
‘I hate him for he is a Christian’
(act 1, scene 3, line 38.)
and then later on, in the trial scene itself, when asked to explain his actions he states:
‘I give no reason, nor I will not, more than a lodg’d hate and a certain loathing, I bear Antonio’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 59-61.)
This speech shows how even Shylock himself cannot explain his deep-rooted hatred of Antonio (the Christian).
The opposite of feuds between cultures, are the bonds which are made between people of the same beliefs and habits. This is shown at the beginning of the Act in the form of a conversation between the Duke and Antonio, both of whom are Christian. In this conversation the Duke reveals his feelings on the matter.
I am sorry for thee: thou art come to answer to a stony adversary, an inhuman
wretch uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 3-6.)
However, Antonio seems to have no hope, and accepts the law without complaint. This opening view of Antonio portrays his temperament throughout the whole scene, right up until the very end when he is released from the fateful bond. Shortly after this conversation ends Shylock enters.
The Duke appeals to Shylock to have mercy upon Antonio, but Shylock is stubborn and sticks with his original decision and intention. Shylock informs the Duke about what will happen if he denies him ‘the due and forfeit of his bond’. The consequence of denying the bond would be something that Antonio himself talked about earlier in the play:
‘The Duke cannot deny the course of law: for the commodity that strangers have with us in Venice, if it be denied, will much impeach the justice of the state, since that the trade and profit of the city consisteth of all nations.’
(act 3, scene 3, lines 26-31.)
This means that if the course of law is not permitted, then foreigners will question the integrity and fairness of Venetian justice, which would be fateful for Venice, as the city’s wealth depends upon international trade. Venice will also lose its reputation as the centre of international trade if the Duke does not grant Shylock his bond.
Yet again, Antonio does not try to excuse himself from the bond, but reminds his friends that they are dealing with a Jew, and of how they will not be able to shift his ‘Jewish Heart’. Bassanio proposes to repay Shylock with twice the amount agreed in the bond but, yet again, Shylock is unmoved in his decision. The Duke now realises that there is no way that he can legally save his friend’s life, but, he states that ‘upon his power’ he may dismiss the court unless Bellario, a famous lawyer whom he has called to the court to ask him of his opinion, can attend the hearing. Bassanio sees this as a possibility that his friend may live, but Antonio is not optimistic and says:
‘I am a tainted wether of the flock, meetest for death; the weakest kind of fruit drops earliest to the ground; and so let me. You cannot be better employ’d, Bassanio, than to live still, and write mine epitaph.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 114-118.)
He almost feels that he deserves to die, and asks Bassanio to carry on with his own life and write his memoirs for him. The lawyer’s clerk, who is Nerissa dressed as a man, arrives with a letter from Bellario. The Duke reads the letter and in the meantime Shylock sharpens his knife on the sole of his shoe. Bassanio is upset by this and asks him ‘Why dost thou wet thy knife so earnestly?’, and Shylock replies that he intends to take what is rightfully his. At this, Gratiano, who until now has been silent, launches a verbal attack on Shylock, accusing him of having the soul of a man-killing wolf. However, as before, Shylock is unscathed by these insults, and reminds Gratiano that he is only here to uphold the law.
After reading the letter the Duke informs the court that Bellario has been taken ill and therefore cannot attend the hearing, but that he has sent a young lawyer in his place, whom he has informed with the details of the case. This lawyer of which the letter speaks is called Balthazar, but when Balthazar enters it becomes apparent to the audience that the lawyer is in fact Portia in disguise. The characters in the play, however, do not know this.
Portia attempts to persuade Shylock to have mercy but is unsuccessful. Finally, she agrees that it is lawful that Shylock shall have his bond. Shylock, who is gratified with this judgement, compares Portia to ‘Daniel’ who, in the Apocrypha, was instructed by God to give a verdict against two ‘elders’ who had tried to rape the celibate lady Susanna. Portia proceeds to gain Shylock’s respect by reminding the court that Antonio must pay the bond with ‘A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off nearest the merchant’s heart.’ Portia asks Shylock whether he has the scales ready to weigh the pound of flesh, to which he replies ‘I have them ready’. Portia then feels that she may have found a way to save Antonio’s life, she asks Shylock:
‘Have by some surgeon, Shylock, on your charge, to stop his wounds, lest he do bleed to death.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 255-256.)
Yet Shylock reminds her that it says nothing about a surgeon in the bond, so her statement is void. Portia accepts this, she then turns to Antonio to ask him if he has anything to say. Antonio speaks to Bassanio to try and console him, concluding with a wry joke about the matter:
‘If the Jew do cut but deep enough, I’ll pay it (the debt) instantly with all my heart.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 278-279.)
Bassanio then comments that he would give up his wife if it would save Antonio, and then Gratiano says that he wishes that his wife were in heaven so that she could stop the proceedings by some divine interception. These comments fracture the tension that has built in the court because, unknown to Bassanio and Gratiano, their wives are there in the court with them. Portia emphasises the irony in this further by saying:
‘Your wife would give you little thanks for that, if she were by to hear you make the offer.’
(act 4, scene, 1 lines 286-287.)
Portia gives permission for Shylock to take his bond, but just as he is preparing to do so she finds a weak link in the bond:
‘Tarry a little: there is something else. This bond doth give thee here no
jot of blood.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 303-304.)
Meaning that Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh but not to any of Antonio’s blood. She then explains that if Shylock does ‘shed one drop of Christian blood’ then he will have his lands and goods confiscated by the state of Venice. At this decree Gratiano is overjoyed as he can see a way out for his friend. He mocks Shylock by repeating the very praises that Shylock himself had delivered to Portia. The likening of Portia to ‘Daniel’ is now more fitting because like Portia, ‘Daniel’ was not anticipated in the court, and the judgement that he gave freed Susanna and condemned her accusers. Shylock is shocked by Portia’s words, but he is not defeated, he offers to accept triple the original amount, which was offered to him earlier:
‘I take this offer then: pay the bond thrice, and let the Christian go.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 316-317.)
Bassanio is about to hand over the money when Portia intervenes again. She states that Shylock shall have only his ‘justice’, so she instructs him to prepare to cut the pound of flesh, but she warns him, if he should cut any more or less than a pound, even in the ‘estimation of a hair’ then he shall lose all that he owns. Gratiano jeers at Shylock even further, and yet again Shylock asks for the money, but Portia reminds us that Shylock had refused the money earlier, so now, ‘he shall have merely justice, and his bond.’ At this, Shylock attempts to leave the court, yet Portia calls him back stating ‘the law hath yet another hold on you.’
This ‘hold’ is yet another law of Venice, which states that any ‘alien’ or foreigner who attempts to take the life of a Venetian shall have all of their possessions confiscated, one half of which shall go to the endangered Venetian, Antonio, and the other half shall go to ‘the privy coffer of the state.’ This law also states that the life of the ‘alien’ shall be in the hands of the Duke, and Portia advises Shylock to get down onto his knees and ‘beg mercy of the Duke’.
The Duke spares Shylock’s life, and Antonio, who is now entitled to half of Shylock’s wealth, is asked ‘what mercy he can render him?’ Antonio, despite Gratiano’s petition, shows his generosity. He offers to take the money on loan, keeping it in confidence for Lorenzo, a Christian who recently ran away with Shylock’s daughter, Jessica. However, Antonio puts two conditions on his offer, firstly, that Shylock must become a Christian and, secondly, that he must make a will leaving all that he owns to Jessica and Lorenzo. In doing this, Antonio has struck the ultimate blow, forcing Shylock to become what he hates and to leave his wealth to someone who has already robbed him of a lot of money and stolen his daughter. Shylock sees that he has been cornered, and asks permission to leave the court. He agrees to conform with Antonio’s conditions saying:
‘Send the deed after me, and I will sign it.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 394-395.)
In agreeing to these conditions Shylock has lost his chance for revenge upon the Christians and has had their revenge cast upon himself. Gratiano now makes his feelings apparent, and he declares to Shylock:
‘In Christening shalt thou have two god-fathers; Had I been judge, thou shouldst have had ten more, to bring thee to the gallows, not to the font.’
(act 4, scene 1, lines 396-398.)
This shows that Gratiano feels that Shylock should have been hanged for, in Christianity, when a child is baptised, two god-fathers are appointed to see that the child is properly educated in the Christian faith. However, at the time, ‘god-fathers’, was also a nick-name for the members of a jury, a body of twelve men, who would have been needed to pass sentence on Shylock. Gratiano suggests that there should have been ten more ‘god-fathers’ in order to make up a jury, who he feels would have condemned Shylock to death. This statement by Gratiano has a double meaning, firstly, that he feels Shylock should have been punished by death and, secondly, that he will be baptised into the Christian faith.
The Duke, yet again showing his liking of Antonio, invites Portia to have dinner at his home with him, but Portia declines his offer because she must ‘away this night to Padua’.
The only thing left to do now is for Bassanio, Antonio and Gratiano to pay the ‘lawyer’ for his services. Bassanio offers the three thousand ducats which would have been used to pay Shylock, yet Portia refuses payment declaring:
‘He is well paid that is well satisfied, and I, delivering you, am satisfied, and therein do account myself well paid’.
(act 4, scene 1, lines 413-415.)
Suddenly though, the ‘lawyer’ catches sight of the ring on Bassanio’s finger, the very ring which Portia gave him at their wedding. She asks for the ring as payment. Bassanio remembers that Portia had told him never to detach himself from the ring for any reason, and, recollecting this, he refuses. Antonio pleads with Bassanio for him to give the ring, and Bassanio, who almost brought about the death of his friend, does not refuse his companion’s wish. He then sends Gratiano after the ‘lawyer’ in order to offer Portia the ring.