In Venice, the Duke opens Antonio's trial by saying that he pities Antonio because Shylock is an "inhuman wretch uncapable of pity" (4.1.3–4). The Duke has attempted to persuade Shylock to spare Antonio, but Shylock will not. Antonio replies that he is prepared to suffer Shylock's rage with quiet dignity.
The Duke's "inhuman wretch" remark is the first of many instances in this court scene in which Shylock will be described as a non-human. Antonio's gentleness is contrasted with Shylock's refusal to be swayed from enacting his revenge.
The Duke summons Shylock into court, and tells him that everyone believes that he means only to terrify Antonio with this performance, and that, at the last minute, Shylock will show mercy, spare Antonio, and forgive his debt. "We all expect a gentle answer Jew!" (4.1.34) the Duke says.
A "gentile" is a non-Jew. The Duke's pun on "gentle Jew'" is an insistence by the Christian court that Shylock show what is believed to be the non-Jewish trait of Christian mercy.
Shylock insists that he wants his "bond," and that if the Duke refuses him it will make a mockery of Venice and its entire justice system. Shylock refuses to explain why he wants a pound of flesh rather than money. He says that some men do not like pigs, some do not like cats, and that he does not have to explain himself any further than by saying that he hates Antonio.
Accused of being inhuman himself, Shylock now compares Antonio to various animals.
Bassanio, who is in the gathered crowd, tries to argue with Shylock. But Antonio interrupts, telling Bassanio it's no use: you might as well try to argue with a wolf as try to soften Shylock's hard "Jewish heart" (4.1.80). Bassanio offers Shylock twice the 3000 ducats that is owed to him. Shylock retorts that he wouldn't accept six times that amount.
Again, the Christians insult the Jews as animals. In the case of Shylock, it is true that his heart can't be softened. He wants revenge! But the Christians don't recognize that their own abuse and institutional prejudice fuel Shylock's rage.
The Duke asks how Shylock can expect mercy if he himself doesn't show it. Shylock replies that he needs no mercy because he's done no wrong. He comments that the Venetians assembled have purchased slaves, asses, dogs, and mules; and just as those creatures belong to their owners, Antonio's pound of flesh belongs to Shylock, who has purchased it.
The Duke introduces "mercy" as an alternative to either "justice" or "revenge." Shylock, however, sticks by his claim that he has the law on his side: he has bought Antonio for money, just like other Venetians buy the flesh of animals and slaves.
The Duke announces that he has asked a wise lawyer, Doctor Bellario, to come and help judge the case. Salerio reports that a messenger has come bearing letters from Bellario, and goes to get him. Privately, Bassanio urges Antonio to try to keep his spirits up, but Antonio responds that he is like the "tainted wether" (castrated ram) in a flock of sheep and that Bassanio should aspire not to die for Antonio, but to live and write Antonio's epitaph.
When Bassanio finally offers a self-sacrificing gesture, Antonio immediately overrides it. By referring to himself as a castrated ram, he casts doubt upon his sexual potency and his potential ability to marry or father children, further supporting the claim that he may be in love with Bassanio.
Nerissa enters, disguised as a lawyer's clerk. She presents a letter to the Duke from Bellario. Meanwhile, Shylock wets his knife in anticipation of a verdict in his favor and Gratiano curses Shylock as an "inexecrable dog," whose "desires are "wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous" (138). Shylock calmly replies that he has the law on his side.
After once again being insulted as an animal, Shylock insists that the law be carried out. As he sees it, he is doing no worse than the Christians do. Their laws restrict his life in countless ways, now his contract with Antonio restricts Antonio's life.
The Duke reports that Bellario has recommended that the court hear the opinion of a young and learned lawyer, named Balthazar, who has studied the case with Bellario and knows his opinion. Portia enters, disguised as Balthazar. The Duke greets her and asks whether she is familiar with the facts of the case. Portia replies that she is. "Which here is the merchant? And which the Jew?" (170), she asks. Antonio and Shylock come forth together.
When the play was first staged, the actor playing Shylock would have been costumed in a red wig with a prosthetic nose, looking nothing like the Venetian characters. In this context, Portia's question about who is the merchant and who is the Jew would probably be played as a joke. But in modern times, it reads as evidence of Antonio and Shylock's shared humanity.
Portia tells Shylock that Venetian law is indeed on his side. Therefore, she begs him to show mercy, "an attribute to God himself" (4.1.191) that "seasons justice" (4.1.192). She repeats: rather than insisting upon justice, she says, Shylock should show mercy. Shylock rejects her request: "I crave the law" (4.1.202), he says, and insists upon having the pound of flesh.
Portia makes a stronger case for mercy as an alternative to either justice or revenge than the Duke did. But Shylock rejects what Portia has described as an attribute of the Christian god, insisting instead on a strict legal interpretation of his contract in order to get vengeance.
Portia asks if Antonio has the money to repay Shylock. Bassanio responds that he has offered up to ten times the sum of money owed, but Shylock refuses to accept it. Bassanio begs that in this case the law be bent to save Antonio's life. Portia responds that the law may not be bent: if she set the precedent that judges could create exceptions for particular cases, then chaos would ensue. Shylock praises Portia, comparing her to Daniel, the famous judge in the Hebrew Bible. Portia asks to see the contract. Shylock shows her. Portia again advises Shylock to take the money—three times the amount Shylock is owed—that Bassanio has offered him. Shylock refuses.
In running through the conditions and possibilities of the case, Portia echoes the suitors trying to figure out the riddle of the caskets. She is treating the law much like a riddle, as something to be interpreted. By citing Daniel as a Jewish forefather (who, incidentally was renamed Balthazar upon moving to Babylon), Shylock is basing his actions in a specifically Jewish set of beliefs and interpretations.
Portia states that Shylock is entitled to take a pound of flesh nearest Antonio's heart. She begs him, once more, to be merciful. Shylock again refuses. Portia instructs Antonio to bear his chest for Shylock's knife and asks whether a scale is ready to weigh the pound of flesh. Shylock has brought scales. Portia recommends that they bring a surgeon on hand to try to save Antonio from bleeding to death after the cut has been made. Shylock refuses on the grounds that there is no such provision in their contract.
Portia, repeatedly calling for Shylock to show mercy, finds that each time he wants to insist on the most literal interpretation of the law. Antonio, meanwhile, instructed to bare himself to be cut open, begins to resemble a Christ-like figure or sacrificial lamb even more fully.
Portia asks Antonio for any last words. Antonio tells Bassanio not to grieve, to send his best wishes to Portia, and to speak well of Antonio after his death. Bassanio and Gratiano respond that to save Antonio's life, they would willingly sacrifice their own lives and the lives of their wives. In their disguises as Balthazar and his clerk, Portia and Nerissa quip that it's a good thing Bassanio and Gratiano's wives aren't present as it's unlikely they would be pleased by such sentiments. Privately, in an aside, Shylock comments in surprise at the nature of Christian husbands, who would so willingly allow their own wives to be killed. He wishes his daughter had taken a husband from "any of the stock of Barrabas (a Jewish bandit) ...rather than a Christian" (292–3). Then, aloud, Shylock demands the court stop wasting time. Portia agrees.
Antonio, Bassanio, and Gratiano, take their friendship and generosity to extraordinary, and, as Portia's quip points out, even ridiculous levels. Shylock's surprise at hearing these Christian men say that they are willing to sacrifice their wives increases the sense that, in some respects, he may deserve more sympathy than the Christian Venetians do. For instance, think of Shylock's tender sadness when he learned that Jessica had first stolen and then sold Leah's ring.
But just as Shylock is about to cut into Antonio, Portia reminds Shylock that the contract doesn't grant him any drop of blood from Antonio's body: "the words expressly are 'a pound of flesh'" (303). She adds that if, in taking his pound of flesh, Shylock sheds "one drop of Christian blood" (4.1.306), then, following the law of Venice, all his lands and goods will be confiscated and given to the city.
Portia beats Shylock at his own game: she interprets the law even more literally than Shylock ever did, and in doing so she finds a loophole she can use to rescue Antonio.
Shylock, stunned, quickly backtracks, and decides to take Bassanio's prior offer of 9000 ducats. Bassanio is ready to accept, but Portia stops him. She says: Shylock wanted justice and he will have it. Shylock must take exactly a pound of flesh but without shedding any blood: if he takes any more or less, he will be put to death and all his property confiscated. Shylock asks if he really won't get back even his initial 3000 ducats. Portia replies that he will get nothing but exactly what the contract specified.
Shylock insisted that he wants the law, and Portia makes sure that he sticks exactly to the contract.
Shylock says that he will give up his suit. But, Portia tells him that another Venetian law holds that if an "alien" (4.1.344) is proven to have sought the life of any "citizen" (4.1.346), that citizen has the right to take one half of the alien's property. The other half is confiscated and given to the state, while the alien's life lies at the mercy of the Duke. Therefore, she advises Shylock to beg for mercy from the Duke.
Now the tables have been turned on Shylock. He was advised to practice mercy but insisted on the law. Now he must beg for mercy rather than a strict interpretation of the law.
Stepping in, the Duke declares that he will show Shylock the "difference of our spirit" (4.1.364). He will spare Shylock's life, but Shylock must give half of his wealth to Antonio and half to the state of Venice. Portia then asks Antonio to weigh in. Antonio says that the state should renounce its claim to its half of Shylock's property; Antonio will use his half during his life and grant it to Lorenzo and Jessica after his death. Shylock, for his part, must convert to Christianity and leave all his wealth to Lorenzo and Jessica.
Both the Duke and Antonio, lessen the force of Portia's law and show Shylock relative generosity. However, in forcing him to convert, they are stripping him of his identity as a Jew and forcing him to give up his occupation, because Christians may not practice usury. In other words, they reduce him to nothing more than the bare animal self he described in 1.3.
When the Duke accepts these conditions, Portia mockingly demands: "Are you contended, Jew?" Shylock concedes that he is. Portia tells the clerk to draw up a deed. Shylock says he feels unwell—they should send the deed after him and he will sign it. As he leaves, Gratiano snarls that he's lucky: if it were up to Gratiano, he would have been sent to the gallows, not to a baptism.
Having shown gracefulness throughout most of the scene, here Portia becomes a bit nastier, as she was when discussing her suitors with Nerissa. Gratiano, too, shows his typical bile. The gracious Christians suddenly seem less gracious.
The Duke asks Portia, still disguised as Balthazar, to dinner. She declines on the grounds that she must get back to Padua. Antonio and Bassanio also thank Portia. Bassanio tries give Portia the 3000 ducats he'd brought to pay off Shylock, but Portia refuses. Bassanio insists that Portia take some gift as a token of thanks. Finally, Portia says she'll take Antonio's gloves and Bassanio's ring. Bassanio hesitates. He says the ring is worthless and he'll buy a more expensive one. Portia persists, and Bassanio admits that the ring is a gift from his wife that he has sworn not to give up. Portia responds that this is a convenient excuse and that as long as Bassanio's wife isn't crazy, she'll understand.
Here, the hospitality and friendly generosity that Act 1 suggested was typical among Venetian Christians, emerges again. Bassanio has already promised that he would sacrifice Portia to save Antonio. Now Portia puts Bassanio in a similar position, pitting his generosity against his love for her, by asking Bassanio to give up the ring he promised to keep in order to thank the person who saved Antonio's life.
After Portia and Nerissa exit, Antonio tells Bassanio that he should value Balthazar's efforts to save Antonio's life more than his wife's orders, and should give up the ring. Bassanio gives in. He sends Gratiano ahead with the ring and tells him to take it to Balthazar. Bassanio and Antonio head off to Antonio's house to rest for the night before returning to Belmont.
By giving away the ring—a symbol of Bassanio's fidelity to Portia and of female genitalia—and heading home with Antonio, for one final night together before his return to his bride and new home, Bassanio hints that he might share some of Antonio's apparent homoerotic desire.