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A Pound of Flesh: Imperfect Reconciliation in The Merchant of Venice

By Edited Sep 22, 2015 1 0

Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is at its heart a quintessential alloy of tragedy and comedy, but is probably best known for its dramatic scenes. The story is set in Venice during the 14th century. Antonio, the title character, is a wealthy merchant. His friend Bassanio is a young, penniless noble who wishes to travel to Belmont to seduce the gorgeous and wealthy Portia. To do so he needs money, so he approaches Antonio for a loan of three thousand ducats. However Antonio is temporarily cash-poor, all his trade ships still sailing the seas. Instead he agrees to provide collateral for the bond if Bassanio can find a lender. Enter the Jewish moneylender Shylock, the play’s most famous character, who grants the loan, for which Antonio is named guarantor. Despite his hatred of Antonio, Shylock proposes that if Antonio is unable to repay the bond in three months, he may cut off a pound of his flesh, an offer the merchant accepts. In Belmont, Bassanio takes Portia as his wife after surmounting the trial of the three caskets.

Casket Scene

While he celebrates his marriage, disaster has struck Antonio. The merchant’s ships have been lost at sea, leaving him unable to repay his debt. Shylock hears of Antonio’s misfortune and strikes, pursuing him in court. Bassanio arrives and offers to repay double the sum, but the Jew is intent on his pound of flesh. The Duke is powerless to nullify the bond, but orders a doctor into the court before pronouncing his judgment. The doctor, actually Portia in disguise, cannot convince the moneylender to be merciful. Yet as the Duke tells Shylock to proceed, she finds a quibble in the bond. Though Shylock is allowed to take a pound of flesh, the blood spilt in the process was not specified in the bond, so it is rendered void. Portia also states that because he threatened a citizen of Venice, he must also forfeit his property, half to the government, half to Antonio. Antonio allows Shylock to keep the state’s half of his property, on the condition that the moneylender convert to Christianity immediately. In the end Antonio is saved and it transpires that three of his ships were in fact not lost, while Bassanio lives a good life with his rich and dazzling wife.

In The Merchant of Venice mercy and reconciliation are upheld as two of the purest Christian virtues. However, as in the modern world, the play’s characters always fall short of the flawless ideal of these values.

Antonio and Bassanio

In the third scene of the play, Bassanio, wishing to woo the heiress of Belmont, the affluent Portia (undoubtedly for reasons other than love alone), brings along Antonio, his guarantor, to determine with Shylock, his lender, the terms of the bond he needs in order to travel to Belmont. A long discussion ensues, during which Antonio’s previous offenses and obscure scripture are cited in equal measure. In the end, Shylock decides not to ask for interest on the loan.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,
And spit upon my Jewish gabardine, [...](I. 3. 111-112.)

This kindness will I show. [...] (I. 3. 145.)
Your single bond; and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day, [...](I. 3. 147-148.)
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken [...](I. 3. 151-152.)

If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture? [...] (I. 3. 165-166.)
To buy his favour, I extend this friendship. (I. 3. 170.)

Bassanio is hesitant, fearing misfortune for his friend if the affair should sour, but Antonio sees the Jew’s offer as quite kind and is confident that his ships will return long before the repayment of the loan is due. Shylock declares that this generous proposal is the beginning of a new friendship, proven by the fact that in his mind he despairs of Bassanio’s “Christian” suspicion of his motives. The moneylender wonders what Bassanio could possibly suspect in the offer and scorns him for his paranoia: a pound of flesh has no value, so what would he gain? Though it is possible that in his heart of hearts Shylock knows that a friendship such as the one he is trying to forge will never last and that the bond will only be used to extract a gruesome penalty on Antonio, in that moment he seems genuine. Notwithstanding, the remainder of the play rapidly reveals a case of reconciliation turned bad.

Pound of Flesh scene

                At the climax of the play, during the dramatic trial scene in which Shylock is on the verge of obtaining his pound of flesh and exacting his revenge on Antonio and, by extension, the Chrisitian community as a whole for its hatred of Jews, the Duke summons the learned doctor Bellario into the courtroom to decide the matter. However Bellario is very ill and sends a replacement. Enter the young doctor Balthazar, actually Portia in disguise, to judge the affair in his stead. In this scene the reader witnesses the opposition between the Jewish, Old Testament inspired, obedience to the letter of the law, and the Christian, New Testament inspired, obedience to the meaning of the law, as well as the holy Christian value of mercy, a value about which Portia preaches in her eloquent monologue.   

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: [...](IV. 1. 189-192.)

Soft!
The Jew shall have all justice; soft! no haste:
He shall have nothing but the penalty. [...](IV. 1. 332-334.)

The party 'gainst which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state;
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the duke only, 'gainst all other voice. (IV. 1. 365-369.)

By her fervent speech Portia tries to persuade Shylock to forsake his vengeance, but her efforts are in vain, as he believes he has paid for it amply, just as he would any other commodity. Yet as Shylock is on the verge of commencing Antonio’s grisly ordeal, she suddenly stipulates that though the bond calls for a pound of flesh, nowhere is blood mentioned: a now clichéd literary quibble. Now it is Portia’s chance to grant the mercy she spoke of so poetically, but it is not forthcoming. In fact she does a complete about-face, telling the Jew in a vicious counter attack that he has now not only forfeit his bond, but his property also, the crushing penalty for seeking the life of a Venetian citizen. Portia speaks of idealized “Christian” mercy beautifully, but in practice the mercy of the play’s Christians is never that pure and she herself quickly demonstrates a hypocritical lack of mercy.

Portia

Once Portia has exploited the quibble in Shylock’s bond, the Duke, deciding to spare the moneylender’s life, announces that for seeking the life of a Venetian citizen Shylock must forfeit his property, half to the state, half to Antonio. Immediately the Jew begs for some slight mercy. He implores the court, saying that it would be taking his life if it were to take the means whereby he lives.  Antonio, against the counsel of his fellows, returns the state’s half of the property to Shylock, and he himself only takes his half “in use” (that is leaving the principal amount while taking only the income).   

So please my lord the duke and all the court
To quit the fine for one half of his goods,
I am content; so he will let me have
The other half in use, to render it,
Upon his death, unto the gentleman
That lately stole his daughter:
Two things provided more, that, for this favour,
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possess'd,
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter. (IV. 1. 393-403.)

However there are conditions to Antonio’s generosity. The most significant is that Shylock must convert to Christianity, which seems as much the result of compassion as it is of self-interest. On a small scale, that of their relationship, peace is sealed; Antonio will no longer harass him about his religion and Shylock, no longer Jewish, will not be able to practice usury, Antonio’s reason for beating and spitting on him in public before. Moreover, Antonio may have the added incentive of the belief that he is saving Shylock from the flames of hell. Yet on a larger scale, that of Venetian society as a whole, Shylock is crushed, the conversion completely alienating him from the Jewish community and his lifelong friends. Also, by stopping Shylock from lending money for interest, Antonio effectively squashes his source of income and eliminates a competitor for the Christian moneylenders. Though the conversion ends the conflict between Antonio and Shylock by starving it of the injustices it needs to continue (Shylock’s reason for revenge was that that was how the past insults and injuries inflicted upon him by the Christians had taught him to respond), it tears the Jew’s life apart completely. While hardly an outright injustice, Antonio’s moment of mercy is far from perfect.

In conclusion, throughout the narrative of The Merchant of Venice the Christian characters fail to uphold the principal Christian values of mercy and reconciliation which Shakespeare presents as two of man's purest virtues.

The Merchant of Venice (Folger Shakespeare Library)
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