The Trial Scene in The Merchant of Venice

The trial scene in The Merchant of Venice is the climax of the play as Shylock has taken Antonio to court. Portia once again proves herself cleverer and more competent than any of the men with whom she shares the stage; and she resolves the major crisis in the comedy and paves the way for a happy ending.

From the point where Shylock enters the courtroom everyone is appealing for mercy for Antonio and this is what the scene demonstrates, a need for mercy. Portia says shortly after she has entered the scene ‘Then the Jew must be merciful’. Not that this is what the law says he must be, but that he should do this because it is the only thing he can do morally. The mercy theme runs all the way through the scene and many opportunities were offered by the Duke, Bassanio and Portia for Shylock to take the moral course of action, but he constantly refuses saying he should get what he deserves not by moral justice but by the law - ‘My deeds upon my head I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond’. Portia lets Shylock have the chance to take the moral path but Shylock chooses to have his pound of flesh. Shylock does not realise he is being played into a trap as he is blinded by spite.

This results in an ironical justice. After Shylock has chosen his course of action, Portia informs him of the consequences, ‘If thou dost shed one drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods are by the laws of Venice confiscate unto the state of Venice’. Antonio receives his moral justice and Shylock is shown little mercy by the letter of the law that he demanded for himself. As Shylock refused to show mercy to Antonio when he had power over him, he is shown the same treatment - ‘The Jew shall have all justice, he shall have nothing but the penalty.’ It is shown to the reader that Shylock gets what is due as the play is written in favour of Christianity, and so all sympathy is lost for Shylock.

A number of critics have raised questions about the accuracy and fairness of the courtroom proceedings: the presiding duke is far from impartial; Portia appears as an unbiased legal authority, when in fact she is married to the defendant’s best friend; and she appears in disguise, under a false name. But if the trial is not just, then the play is not just, and it ceases to be a comedy. Thus, while Portia bends the rules of the court, her decision is nonetheless legally accurate. More important for the cause of justice, the original bond was made under false pretenses—Shylock lied when he told Antonio that he would never collect the pound of flesh. Therefore, Portia’s actions restore justice instead of pervert it.

However, many modern readers find it difficult to rejoice in Portia’s victory. Portia not only releases Antonio from his bond, but effectively strips Shylock of both his religion and his livelihood, rendering him unable to inflict, or even threaten, further damage. Shakespeare’s contemporaries, the majority of whom assumed that eternal damnation was the fate of any non-Christian, would have witnessed Shylock’s conversion as a vital contribution to the play’s happy ending. By turning Shylock into a Christian, the Venetians satisfy themselves with their own kindness in saving the soul of a heathen. But audiences today find laughing at Shylock to be much harder.

Perhaps the court’s verdict fits Shylock’s crimes, but the court indulges in an equally literal and severe reading of the law in order to effect the same vicious end: the utter annihilation of a human being. Before doling out Shylock’s punishment, the duke assures him that he will “see the difference of our spirit,” but the spirit of the Venetians proves to be as vindictive as the Jew’s (IV.i.363). The duke spares Shylock’s life, but takes away his ability to practice his profession and his religion. Modern audiences cannot help but view Shylock as a victim.

Last modified: Friday, 5 June 2020, 11:09 AM