The Merchant of Venice: Scene Notes – Act IV, scene i (lines 220 – end)




·         Although Portia proclaims that Shylock has the right to what is stated in the bond, she begs him to be merciful and take “thrice they money” instead.

·         Shylock flatters Portia, saying she is a “worthy judge” and that she knows the law; he becomes even more ecstatic once she tells Antonio to “prepare you bosom for his knife.”

·         Shylock can be seen as a villain, as he refuses Portia’s request to have a surgeon to stop Antonio from bleeding to death after the pound of flesh “nearest his heart” is removed; he constantly is repeating the conditions of the bond and the word “bond” itself

·         Antonio is asked if he has any comments:

o        He says that he is “armed and well prepared” and tells Bassanio not to be sad, as Fortune has given him a kind fate as he is allowed to die before he is poor.

o        “I’ll pay instantly, with all my heart.”

·         Dramatic irony and some relief are given to this tense scene when Gratiano and Bassanio proclaim how they are willing to give the lives of their wives in order for Antonio to live.

·         There is a shift in the mood of the scene: Portia explains that the bond does not say that Shylock is allowed to “shed one drop of Christian blood” and if he were to do so when he takes a pound of flesh from Antonio, his wealth would be confiscated to the state of Venice. This makes the Christian’s joyous, and Gratiano begins to copy the language that Shylock used earlier when he was happy, as a way to mock the Jew.

·         Although Shylock wants to leave the court with only the money, Portia stops him, saying that he shall have “nothing but the penalty.” As Shylock has attempted to take the life of a Christian, as an alien if Venice, half of his gods shall go to Antonio, the other half to the state and his life lies in the hands of the Duke.

·         Antonio decides to be ‘merciful’ and asks the court, along with the Duke, to give half of Shylock’s estate upon his death to Jessica and Lorenzo. Shylock is to also convert to Christianity.  Shylock accepts this and leaves the court.

·         At the end of the scene, there is another brief comedic moment, as if to make the audience forget about Shylock and focus on the two Christian couples (Bassanio + Portia, Gratiano + Nerissa.) Both Portia and Nerissa test their husbands by asking for the rings that Bassanio and Gratiano are wearing, the rings that they had promised to wear until their death. Although with much reluctance, they do give up their rings to their wives in disguise.



Motifs and connotations

Bonds/legal documents:

·         The repetition of the word “bond” by Shylock shows how he is greedy and unwilling to change, which is in contrast to the Christian characters. It also has connotations of enslavement, reminding the audience of previous scenes. He can also be seen as blood thirsty, vampirical, as his insistence of the bond shows how he wants nothing more than Anotonio’s pound of flesh. This therefore portrays him in a negative light. This emphasizes the juxtaposition between the Christians, who seem to be willing to change and be flexible who are dispersed throughout the court room and the single Jew within the court, Shylock.

·         However, his insistence on the bond could also just be seen as Shylock wanting to have the justice that he deserves, as the pound of flesh was the agreement that was made with Antonio, if he were not able to pay Shylock back. As an audience, we should find his repetition of the bond to a sense, justified.


The law:

·         The law and the court of law should stand for righteousness and equality; however, the modern audience may question whether Portia’s ruling was fair. It can be seen that there are different laws that apply to different people within Venice: “the law hath another hold on you” (pg.207), just because Shylock is an “alien” to Venice whilst Antonio is referred to as a “citizen.” (Pg. 207)

·         Portia is meant to be the symbol of justice, as she will decide whether the bond is granted. At first, although she seems to be just, there is an eventual progression to the point where she finds a way to save Antonio, and manages to find a punishment for Shylock. “Soft!” “no haste!’ “Tarry, Jew” (pg. 206-207) shows the turning point from where Portia stops becoming just and begins to take on a role that side with the Christians.



·         The court is within Venice, a male-dominant, business-minded society. This means that the only way for Nerissa and Portia to fit into this world is through the transformation as men. This allows their opinions, mainly Portia (who disguises herself as Balthazar) to be valued equally to the others.

·         The fact that women must put on a disguise to look like men in order to have their values and opinions heard reminds the audience of the stereotypical view point of Shakepeare’s time. It shows how women have a lower status to men and how their importance is classed by their appearance, not their ideas or intellect.(Reference back to when Bassanio lists Portia’s qualities, starting off with her looks.)




Christians versus non-Christians:

·                     This is a crucial scene for this theme; everyone important (the Duke, Portia, Antonio) that decides the fate of the bond and Shylock are Christians. Although it is said that the Christians are meant to be merciful, the demands that Antonio gives to Shylock to spare his life does not seem to be so. For Shylock to “become a Christian”, the religion he despises, is a fate worse than death. To refer to the man who stole his daughter as “his son Lorenzo” as well as giving all that he has upon death to them is also a cruel act. This raises questions as to whether Shylock was given a fair trial; there seems to be a lot of bias due to the fact that Shylock is a Jew. An alternative interpretation, however, is that by forcing Shylock to convert to Christianity the Christians are in fact doing Shylock a great good by saving his soul as it is impossible for non-Christians to enter Heaven.

·                     Also, the fact that Portia refuses to let Shylock get away with just his money, cautioning him “Soft! The Jew shall have all justice” (pg. 206) shows how although the audience may have initially thought that she represented justice for all, she doesn’t; she seems to represent justice for the Christians.

·                     The fact that Shylock would rather Jessica had married “any of the stock of Barabbas “ “rather than a Christian.” Shows the tension between Shylock (the Jew) and the rest of the Christian society. The audience, who would be familiar with the image of Barabbas from Passion plays within that time would be shocked at how Shylock would rather Jessica marry a criminal than a decent Christian like Lorenzo.



·         Although the Jew is expected to show mercy towards Antonio, when Antonio is allowed to be merciful by saving Shylock, he does not seem to do so. He instead strips Shylock of all that is important to him: his money and his religion.



·         Within this Act, this theme is used to lighten the situation. It provides dramatic irony, “your wife would give you little thanks for that.” (pg. 201) the wish would make else an unquiet house” (pg. 201), which lightens the situation which has become tense by the fact that Antonio is about to lose his pound of flesh.

·         The couples also provide a comedic finish to the Act, with the attempts to take the rings away from their husbands, drawing the attention away from the ostracized Jew to prevent the audience from empathizing with him too much.

·         The love between Antonio and the other Christians, mainly Bassanio contrasts him to Shylock; it makes Antonio seem like an even better character, and more merciful and gracious, as even as he is about to die, he claims that he “repents not that he pays your [Bassanio’s] debt.” (pg.201) Another interpretation would be that Bassanio and Antonio were more than just good friends but were lovers “say how I loved you.” (pg.201)



“Balance” (pg. 199):

·         The imagery of the balance that Portia refers to could allude to Portia herself; the balance could be a symbol representing how Portia is meant to be seen as balanced and fair for she in a sense is removed from the scene, as she is a woman and is in Venice (a male-dominated society unlike Belmont.) The reason she could be seen as a righteous character is because she is the only Christian to have ever referred to Shylock by his name: pg.195,199


“Devil” (pg.201), “alien” (pg.207), “currish Jew” (pg.201):

·         The images of an outsider, portrayed in a negative aspect is used throughout the act to describe Shylock; this sets up opposition between him and the martry-like Antonio, who seems willing to give up his pound of flesh, claiming that Fate was showing herself “more kind” by allowing him to go before he has no money.


Ring (pg. 215):

·         The rings that are worn by Bassanio and Gratiano represent the love and the ties between husband and wife; in this scene, the rings also come to represent a brief comical moment, which distracts the audience from the gravity of Shylock’s situation. The fact that the men are willing to give up their rings, which they had earlier promised to wear until their deaths, shows a sense of superficiality to the love and the promises that were made. This leads the audience to question the authenticity of the love, especially when coupled with the fact that Bassanio fell in love with Portia’s looks before anything else.


The “deed of gift” (pg. 211, 217):

·         The image of the deed reminds the audience of Shylock’s fate and how he is to lose everything that was dear to him (his money and his religion.) The fact that he will become Christian emphasizes how he will further be ostracized within society.





·         Referred to as “an upright judge, a learned judge!” (pg.205) by both Shylock and Gratiano. The audience questions whether she was fair throughout the trial or merely trying to save Antonio (her husband’s best friend) by finding a loop hole within the bond.

·         Although she had the power within Belmont, when she and Nerissa went to Venice, they had to put on disguises to look like men. This shows how men were always seen as superior to women and that the only way their ideals were to be accepted would be if they were to be males.

·         She is one of the only Christians who refers to Shylock by his name, and doesn’t try to de-humanise him in any way. This shows her as an upright character, who seem to be impartial.

·         However, on page 203, when she proclaims “tarry a little”, this shows how she begins to stop being impartial and the audience see a new side to Portia: a character who could be seen as manipulative, stringing Shylock along through most of the trial scene, promising him his pound of flesh and then refusing to give it to him in the last instance. Alternatively, of course, she could be viewed as cunning and ingenious.

·         The shared line between Shylock and Portia (line 310) may show how Portia has the power between the two characters and is emphasizing this point to Shylock. She seems to be taking advantage of the weakened status of the Jew.

·         She can be interpreted as a smart character, especially within this Act, as she not only manages to save Antonio, but she manages to con the ring that she gave Bassanio from him. It is only when she is in male clothing does she seem to have equal power to her husband.



·         This is the most important scene for Shylock. He is now stripped of his wealth and his religion, both of which were very important towards him. This causes empathy with the audience, as by the end of the scene, he has become a weakened, pathetic character who cannot even fight back. “I pray you give me leave to go from hence; I am not well.” (pg. 211) This humanizes the character; however, Shakespeare does not allow the audience to sympathise with the character for long as the play moves on quickly. He doesn’t even appear within the last Act of the play.

·         Our sympathy towards Shylock increases with the progression of the Act. At the start, as Shylock does not want to be merciful, we see him in a more negative light. However, when compared to the treatment throughout the act, and his ‘demise’ in a sense, we feel sorry for him.

·         He is referred throughout as an “alien” and a “devil”, which also causes the audience to sympathize with him. This sympathy rises even more due to the treatment that he receives from the Christians, mainly Gratiano, who mocks Shylock’s earlier language “O Jew! An upright judge” (pg.205)



·         Antonio is given the chance to be merciful, something the Christians have been asking Shylock to be throughout the Act, and yet he refuses to do so. Instead of truly forgiving the Jew, he wants Shylock to convert to Christianity and to forfeit his money to Jessica and her Christian husband upon death. This doesn’t seem like something Shylock would have wanted; he would have probably chosen death over this, as this arrangement means that Shylock essentially is a living dead: he no longer is able to fraternize with other Jews, he can no longer practice usery; he won’t fit in with the Christians, but will no longer fit in with the Jews either.




This entire scene is set within the court room, within Venice. The importance of Venice is to remind the audience that Venice is the place where men have the power and business is the main agenda. This explains why Portia and Nerissa must disguise themselves if they want to be able to fit in. Act Two is also set within Venice.



Narrative style/ language

Portia is one of the characters that is given the most to speak within this scene, in a sense showing her power.



Relation of Part to Whole

This scene follows on from the already tense scene where Antonio must give away a pound of his flesh; this gets resolved within this scene. Shylock is forced to become Christian and give away his money to his daughter upon his death. The tension is finally resolved within this extract and a more light-hearted scene gives occurs after, where the audience see the results of the two men (Bassanio and Gratiano) giving away their rings. Shylock doesn’t even appear.