BB: Merchant of Venice, Act IV

A special treat this week: a studio recording of Act IV, scene 1! The recording was done a few months as a pilot for a radio show. Unfortunately, the show was never picked up but why let the recording go to waste? Hope you enjoy it. (Act IV, scene 2 was recorded this week).

Listen to the podcast here.

Download the podcast.

Act IV, scene 1 takes place in the courtrooms of Venice, presided over which presides the Duke, the ultimate authority of the city. However, as Shylock explains, the Duke doesn’t have the power to free Antonio because to suggest that the laws of Venice can be overturned arbitrarily as the ruler wishes robs these laws of all their power. However, though some clever application of Venetian laws, engineered by Portia in disguise, Shylock is beaten at his own game. When Shylock’s life is placed in Antonio’s hands, he chooses not to have Shylock killed but to be ‘merciful’ and spare Shylock’s life. Antonio’s ‘mercy’ leaves half of Shylock’s wealth to Antonio – who is in dire need of cash at this point – with the rest being turned over to Lorenzo, the man who stole away his daughter. However, it also forces Shylock to convert to Christianity.

The Merchant of Venice is, among other things, about justice and judgement. The play opposes two conceptions of justice. The first model goes something like this: what is just is what is in accordance to the law. The second model, however, sounds more like this: perfect law is not perfect justice but tyranny.

Representing the first form of justice is Shylock. Whatever the moral implications of his demand, Shylock is perfectly within his legal rights to claim his pound of flesh. Both Antonio and the duke recognise that this is the case as well, which is what creates the problem for Antonio in the first place. Representing the second form of justice is Antonio, who stands for the principle of law tempered by mercy. (This parallel, incidentally, can also be thought of as sketching out an Old Testament – Jewish – vs. New Testament – Christian – conception of justice.)

In act IV, scene 2 is when Portia and Nerissa manage to make good on their promise and obtain their rings from Bassanio and Gratiano. There’s not much to say about this scene except that it’s brought about at Antonio’s wish, it seems. Antonio tells Bassanio that he should give the clerk the ring: “My Lord Bassanio, let him have the ring: / Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued against your wife’s commandment” (IV,1). Basically Bassanio decides that Antonio’s value and love trumps Portia’s wish that he keep his ring. Hell of a catch, this Bassanio…

Throughout Act IV, scene 1 several references are made to the Old Testament prophet, Daniel. Daniel represents the figure of the wise judge, able to see through falsehoods and reach a verdict that is truthful. This reputation is largely inspired from the story of Susanna (from the Book of Daniel).

In the biblical story, Susanna is approached by two old judges while she is bathing in the garden. They tell her that unless she agrees to have sex with them, they will instead tell her father that she had sent away her servants in order to have sex with a young man. Susanna refuses to do so and was brought before her people and sentenced to death. Daniel interrupted the judges, however, and suggested that they be interrogated separately about their testimony. Having questioned them about which type of tree the young man slept with Susanna, he caught them in a lie and they were sentenced to death and Susanna was saved.

You can find a version of the story of Susanna, from the apocrypha of the King james bible, here. (I can also highly recommend reading Wallace Steven’s poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier” which makes use of the story of Susanna in a more explicit way. Peter Quince, some of you might remember, is one of the members of Bottom’s acting troupe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.)

In a sense, what Antonio’s sentence does is rewrite the ending of that story: given the right to exact his vengeance on Shylock for having sought to kill him, Antonio chooses instead to spare Shylock from the tyranny of law. Shylock should die, but instead he lives. This would certainly have resonated with the contemporary English Protestant idea that it is through divine grace alone, through God’s mercy, that we ourselves are spared despite our having transgressed God’s law.

The Brawlers have discussed the nature of Antonio’s ‘mercy’ at length but we haven’t managed to agree about how we feel about that sentencing. Is Antonio really being merciful? Is he being cruel to Shylock in asking him to give up his ‘Talmudic law’ for ‘Christian mercy’? Why not weight in and tell us what you think about the nature of Antonio’s mercy? We’d love to hear from you!

Bard on!

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