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At the court of law in Venice, the Duke, Antonio, Bassanio, Salerio, Graziano, and various notable personages are gathered for Antonio's trial. The Duke begins the trial by showing how impartial he is: he immediately says he's sorry for Antonio and that Shylock is an "inhuman wretch, uncapable [sic] of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy."
Wow, so much for a fair trial. Antonio shrugs this off as no big deal—he knows everyone has done what they can, and he's prepared to face Shylock's fury head-on, patiently suffering Shylock's rage.
Shylock is called into court, where the Duke addresses him first. The Duke says that he and the whole world are certain that Shylock has only let things get this dangerous out of malice. They're all sure that at the last minute Shylock will go back on his cruelty and renege on wanting a pound of Antonio's flesh.
They even expect his mercy will extend to forgiving some portion of the debt, especially as Shylock knows of the crippling losses Antonio just faced at sea, losses that would destroy any man. Even a Turk or a Tartar, known for their lack of manners, would be moved to pity facing Antonio and his bad circumstances.
Shylock is advised that he should have a gentle answer.
Shylock speaks for himself at court, rather than having a lawyer. He says he's sworn by the Jewish holy Sabbath that he'll get what he's owed for Antonio's forfeiture of the bond. Further, if the city should fail to enforce Antonio's oath, their charter and their freedom will be called into question.
Shylock simply states that he doesn't actually have to answer why he'd rather have a pound of Antonio's flesh than the 3,000 ducats. Other men have all sorts of preferences—some don't like roasted pig, some pee when they hear bagpipes (we're not kidding—he really says this).
Just as those men are swayed by their inexplicable passions, Shylock should be allowed to inflict his cruelty against Antonio because he darn well pleases it—no need explaining it to the rest of the world. He adds that he can't give a reason, nor will he, about why he will show no mercy to Antonio. All he can offer is that he loathes the man, and that this should be reason enough to want what Shylock is rightfully owed in the first place.
Bassanio pipes up and says this doesn't excuse how cruel Shylock is being—do all men kill what they hate? Shylock retorts that a man would only be driven to kill something because he hated it. (En garde!) The two bicker until Antonio cuts them off. It's clear to him that arguing with Shylock is, as he says, as useful as asking the wolf why it ate the lamb and made the mommy sheep cry.
Antonio claims nothing is harder than the Jewish heart, which nothing can soften. He'd rather they finish all this pleading and hurry up to the trial's conclusion, so he can be judged and Shylock can get what he wants.
The Duke tries to chide Shylock, asking how he can expect mercy when offers none. Actually, Shylock points out, he hasn't done any wrong. He then brilliantly flips the script. He points out that there are lots of slave owners in the crowd. He notes that if the Duke demanded of those men that they free their slaves and allow them to live peacefully and in equality with their former masters, the men would revolt.
The justification for their rebellion would be that "The slaves are ours." Just like them, Shylock has bought and paid for Antonio's pound of flesh—Antonio even agreed to it (which is a notch above slavery, he seems to be saying). If the law is worth anything, they will uphold it for Shylock the same way they would protect slave owners.
The Duke responds to Shylock's arguments with the retort, "Maybe we should all go home now, unless Doctor Bellario, who is the real guy who can settle this, shows up." (Note: "Doctor" seems in this play to be a general term for a learned man, so this guy is probably some sort of lawyer, not a medical professional. Given the terms of the bond agreement, though, one of those probably wouldn't hurt to have around.)
Conveniently, a messenger has arrived with news from Bellario at Padua.
Meanwhile, Bassanio and Antonio aren't paying much attention, as they're having their own private pity party. Bassanio promises he'd sooner give up his blood and bones than have Antonio lose a drop of blood on his behalf.
Antonio counters that he himself is the weakest link, so he's the one who should die. Bassanio would be most useful not by being self-sacrificing but by writing Antonio's epitaph.
As Shylock and Graziano argue over whether Shylock is the soul of a murderous wolf reincarnated, the Duke gets around to reading the freshly-delivered message. The letter is from Doctor Bellario and says he is sick, but he's sending this young man in his stead. The boy (who is actually Portia) has been briefed on the situation and is prepared to act based on Doctor Bellario's opinion and his own learning.
Portia enters and is introduced to the court as "the learned doctor Balthazar." She's all business and immediately asks Antonio if he admits to his oath with Shylock. Antonio does, and Portia immediately concludes "Then the Jew must be merciful." Her reasoning is that mercy is an attribute of God himself, and earthly justice should try to mirror what God would do rather than simply what the law would.
Portia argues that if legal justice, or justice as the court would provide, was all that mankind followed, everyone would go to hell, because mercy is necessary for salvation. She adds that as we all pray for heavenly mercy, we must be willing to be merciful ourselves here on earth. Her hope in making this argument, she says, is to soften Shylock's plea for justice, strictly interpreted.
Shylock's retort is that he isn't asking for mercy—especially not from a Christian God, he seems to implicitly add. He reiterates that he's here to see justice served according to the law, no more and no less.
Portia asks whether Antonio can just pay off the debt, and Bassanio immediately offers to pay twice what's owed. In fact, Bassanio is willing to pay ten times the debt, offering his own life up as the guarantee. Bassanio declares that if this is not enough, it will prove that Shylock is more motivated by malice than righteousness.
Finally Bassanio appeals to the Duke, asking him to—just this once—take the law into his own hands and help Antonio. It would mean a little twisting of the rules, but it would have a good impact. Portia, however—as "the learned Balthazar"—pipes up here that bending the rules simply isn't an option; it would set a bad precedent.
After looking over Shylock's bond, Portia declares that he has every legal right to what's owed to him because of Antonio's forfeit. Still, she again asks Shylock to be merciful, and suggests he might forget the whole bond by accepting three times what he's owed.
Shylock compliments Portia for her knowledge of the law, but again states that no man will move him. He will have his due according to the law. Antonio too is tired of all this talk and would rather just get the whole darned thing over with. Portia tells Antonio to bare his chest and be prepared to go under the knife for Shylock.
They then go over the logistics. Shylock has scales ready to weigh the flesh. (This guy was obviously not joking.) Also, he's going to take the flesh from near Antonio's heart, as was apparently stipulated in the bond. (This is the first time we're hearing this.) Portia asks Shylock if he has a surgeon ready nearby to stop the wounds so Antonio doesn't bleed to death, but Shylock notes that this wasn't part of the agreement.
Antonio and Bassanio then hold hands and share tearful goodbyes. Antonio tells Bassanio not to be sad that he's dying on his behalf. He tells Bassanio instead to be stoked that Fortune, usually a cruel wench, has allowed Antonio to die mercifully rather than live like a poor person.
Antonio tells Bassanio to tell his new wife Portia the story of his death—then Portia can then judge whether someone didn't once love Bassanio. In other words, Antonio loves Bassanio, and his wife really needs to know that.
Antonio then instructs Bassanio only to be sad that he's losing a friend. Antonio himself does not regret paying Bassanio's debt to Shylock with his life, so Bassanio shouldn't either.
Bassanio then points out that his wife is as dear to him as his life, but even his wife, his life, and the world put together are not worth more to him than Antonio. (Aw!)
Portia, in disguise, wryly comments that if Bassanio's wife were around to hear this, she wouldn't be stoked (which she is not!). Then Graziano offers up his wife, too, adding that he wishes she were dead and in heaven so she could plead with God to change Shylock's mind.
Nerissa, Graziano's wife disguised as Balthazar's attendant, also wryly states that if Graziano's wife were around to hear this, there'd be no peace in his household. Shylock adds that this is the way with Christian husbands, and he laments that a Christian, not a Jew, took his own daughter. (And his money, but who's counting?)
Finally they're done talking about the merits of marrying Christians, and Portia is back to getting Antonio cut for Shylock. She lays out again the stipulations of the bond: the law gives up a pound of Antonio's flesh, and the law allows Shylock to cut it from Antonio's breast.
As Shylock is nearly salivating over the prospect of some Antonio flesh, Portia suddenly halts the process. She says the bond allows for a pound of flesh, but not for the shedding of blood. If Shylock takes a drop of Christian blood from Antonio, then the law of Venice states that Venice can confiscate his land and goods. Shylock's all, "What?! Is that really the law?" and Portia points out that since Shylock was so keen on following the letter of the law, he's got to follow all of the law, including the law of Venice on assaulting Christians.
Hearing this, Shylock quickly backpedals; he'd rather just take three times the bond money and be on his merry way without making Antonio into fish-bait. But Portia insists this is no longer an option—he wanted the law, and now he'll get the law. He can still have exactly a pound of Antonio's flesh, but if he sheds any blood or if he takes more than one exact pound, then he dies and all his worldly goods will go to the state.
Shylock, caught, asks only for the principal of the debt, the 3,000 ducats, hoping for the whole affair to just be over with. Though Bassanio offers it up, Portia cuts him off again. Shylock has already refused the offer in court, and he will receive only the law, just as he asked for. Portia insists that Shylock no longer has any right to anything but the forfeiture of Antonio's flesh, which he can take at his own peril.
Shylock is beat, and he knows it, so he says he won't stick around to hear any more of the case. Again Portia stops him, as the law has more to say about the trial. She brings up another law of Venice, which says that if a foreign national has sought the life of a Venetian, either directly or indirectly, then the would-be victim gets half of his stuff, and the other half will go to the state, while the fate of the would-be murderer is in the hands of the Duke. Things being as they are, it's clear that Shylock sought the life of Antonio, a Venetian, and the state and Antonio can confiscate his stuff. All Shylock has left to do is beg the Duke to spare his life.
Graziano, always helpful, says it would be nice if Shylock could beg for permission to hang himself, but with his estate gone, he couldn't afford any rope and he'd have to get the state to buy it for him. The Duke, who has apparently gone through more sensitivity training than Graziano, cuts in and pardons Shylock's life before Shylock even asks him to. The Duke declares that half of Shylock's wealth now belongs to Antonio, and the state will be merciful and only charge Shylock a fine instead of taking the other half of his wealth.
Shylock speaks for the first time and says if they take away his means of living, they may as well take his life. Portia asks Antonio what mercy he can offer Shylock.
All right, so there's some scholarly debate over what Antonio actually offers. Essentially he says he's okay with the state deciding that Shylock doesn't need to pay them their half of the fine. As for his half, he'd like to have it "in use," which might mean "preserved in trust" or used as a source of income. Either way, when Shylock dies, that money should go to Lorenzo, the Christian man who recently "stole" and married Shylock's daughter Jessica.
Antonio has two more conditions: Shylock needs to convert to Christianity, and he needs to put in the court record that when he dies, Jessica and Lorenzo will inherit everything he leaves behind.
The Duke likes all of Antonio's conditions. (Because forced religious conversion is always a good idea, right?) He says that if Shylock doesn't accept them, he will recant his pardon on Shylock's life. Shylock, who is clearly getting the shaft left and right, has no choice left, so announces that he is content. Portia tries to get the clerk to write up the deed of gift to Jessica and Lorenzo, but Shylock is, understandably, not feeling well. He asks them to let him get the hell out of the court and to send the deed after him to sign.
The Duke invites the disguised Portia to have dinner with him, but she diplomatically defers. She says she really has to be getting back to Padua.
Bassanio then approaches Portia and offers her the 3,000 ducats they had tried to give Shylock earlier. Antonio adds that he'll love "Balthazar" forever and ever. Portia/Balthazar basically says, "Thanks, but no thanks. I did a good job, and that's enough for me." Still, she teases that the men will recognize her when they meet again.
Bassanio presses that she really should take something, and also pardon him for being so persistent. Portia/Balthazar relents and asks for Antonio's gloves, which she says she'll wear for his sake.
From Bassanio she wants his ring (which is actually hers). Bassanio hesitates, saying there's more to this ring than its monetary value. He offers to get Balthazar the most expensive ring in Venice if he can only keep this one. But Portia/Balthazar insists, especially because he insisted so much initially.
Bassanio then explains that his wife gave him the ring, and to give it away would be to break faith with her, as she made him promise never to give it away, sell it, or lose it. Portia responds sharply—she says this is a common excuse for men who don't want to give away their stuff. She then says if Bassanio's wife is not a "mad woman," she'll understand that Balthazar did Bassanio a great service and therefore deserved the ring.
Also, Portia-in-disguise counsels, his wife can't be mad at him forever. Then Portia says, in essence, "Okay, never mind." And she leaves.
Antonio chastises Bassanio after Portia/Balthazar and his attendant leave. He tells Bassanio to give up the ring. It's what Balthazar deserves, and Antonio's love should be worth more than Portia's bossy demands.
Bassanio wimps out and gives in. He gives Graziano the ring and instructs him to run after Balthazar, give him the ring, and try to get him to come to Antonio's house for dinner. Having done this, Bassanio says he'll hang for the night with Antonio (as he promised Portia he would not do) and then they'll both head to Belmont in the morning.