Study Guide

The Merchant of Venice Justice

By William Shakespeare

Justice

Act 1, Scene 3
Shylock

SHYLOCK
Signior Antonio, many a time and oft
In the Rialto you have rated me
About my moneys and my usances.
Still have I borne it with a patient shrug
(For suff'rance is the badge of all our tribe).
You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog,
And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine,
And all for use of that which is mine own.
Well then, it now appears you need my help.
Go to, then. You come to me, and you say
"Shylock, we would have moneys"—you say so,
You that did void your rheum upon my beard,
And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur
Over your threshold. Moneys is your suit.
What should I say to you? Should I not say
"Hath a dog money? Is it possible
A cur can lend three thousand ducats?" Or
Shall I bend low and, in a bondman's key,
With bated breath and whisp'ring humbleness,
Say this:
"Fair sir, you spet on me on Wednesday
   last;
You spurned me such a day; another time
You call'd me 'dog'; and for these courtesies
I'll lend you thus much moneys"? (1.3.116-139)

Shylock makes the reasonable point that it would be questionable if he were simply to repay Antonio's injustices against him with kindness. This would be merciful, but Antonio doesn't ask him for mercy, nor does Shylock seem too keen to give it. Their hatred of each other may have been justified, but when Antonio comes to seek help from Shylock, the tables are turned. Shylock can rightfully demand an apology, or at least some recognition of the injustice against him.

SHYLOCK
Pray you, tell me this:
If he should break his day, what should I gain
By the exaction of the forfeiture?
A pound of man's flesh taken from a man
Is not so estimable, profitable neither,
As flesh of muttons, beefs, or goats. I say,
To buy his favor, I extend this friendship.
If he will take it, so. If not, adieu;
And, for my love I pray you wrong me not. (1.3.174-182)

We've got to wonder why Shylock actually does want Antonio's flesh. It's suspicious that he had the pound-of-flesh solution in mind, and even more suspicious that he defends it so glibly as no big deal. Maybe Shylock was never kidding about the pound-of-flesh thing, and it was all premeditated.

Antonio

ANTONIO
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy,
Who, if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty. (1.3.142-147)

Antonio is really asking for it here. He says that because he's not coming to ask for money out of friendship, and this is just business, Shylock has the right to exact a penalty should Antonio fail his bond. While Shylock's seeking a pound of flesh seems rather extreme, it can be linked back to Antonio's extravagant and unapologetic manner of asking for the money in the first place.

Act 3, Scene 1

TUBAL
There came divers of Antonio's creditors in my
company to Venice that swear he cannot choose
but break.
SHYLOCK
I am very glad of it. I'll plague him, I'll
torture him. I am glad of it.
TUBAL
One of them showed me a ring that he had of
your daughter for a monkey.
SHYLOCK
Out upon her! Thou torturest me, Tubal. It
was my turquoise! I had it of Leah when I was a
bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness
of monkeys.
TUBAL
But Antonio is certainly undone.
SHYLOCK
Nay, that's true, that's very true. Go, Tubal,
fee me an officer. Bespeak him a fortnight before. I
will have the heart of him if he forfeit, for were he
out of Venice I can make what merchandise I will. (3.1.112-127)

Tubal delivers news of Antonio's failed ventures and Jessica's betrayals. Reasonably, Shylock's reactions to these two threads of news mix, and he clearly decides he'll take his vengeance out on Antonio. His rousing speech earlier to Salerio and Solanio suggested he was ready to take vengeance against Antonio, but if there's a moment that he really decides he's going to go after his pound of flesh, this is it. It's also poignant that what drives him over the edge is the fact that Jessica pawned her mother's turquoise ring. If she can sell even that, it seems, then nothing is worth anything, not money, family, or love. Shylock can't be bothered to grieve sentimentally, as he was never that kind of guy anyway, but justice is the only thing that can deliver him any kind of satisfaction now, as everything else has been rendered worthless.

Shylock

SHYLOCK
Why, thou
loss upon loss! The thief gone with so much, and so
much to find the thief, and no satisfaction, no
revenge, nor no ill luck stirring but what lights a' my
shoulders, no sighs but a' my breathing; no tears but
a' my shedding. (3.1.91-96)

Shylock is genuinely despairing here. It seems the fact that he has no recourse, vengeance, or justice is as upsetting to him as the fact that his daughter has stolen from him and run away. The only justice he can seek is against Antonio—even though Antonio had nothing to do with this particular affair. It's clear from this moment on that Shylock will pursue the law tooth and nail. His frustration with Antonio will combine with his frustration at having no love and no advocate.

Act 3, Scene 2
Bassanio

BASSANIO
Like one of two contending in a prize
That thinks he hath done well in people's eyes,
Hearing applause and universal shout,
Giddy in spirit, still gazing in a doubt
Whether those peals of praise be his or no,
So, thrice-fair lady, stand I even so,
As doubtful whether what I see be true,
Until confirmed, signed, ratified by you. (3.2.145-152)

Bassanio seems right to be utterly shocked and a little disbelieving at his victory in the casket game. Was Nerissa right when she said that fate and destiny would help make the decision?

BASSANIO
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? (3.2.77-79)

Bassanio shows a great deal of wisdom here, reasoning that ornamentation can be deceiving. Anyone with a sweet voice can manipulate the law and disguise his true intent. This is particularly prescient, as Portia's eloquence will convince the court to impose a merciless sentence on Shylock and leave her looking like the picture of justice. Portia herself points out that justice can be contrary to the greater good of mercy.

Act 3, Scene 3
Antonio

ANTONIO
The duke cannot deny the course of law,
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state,
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. Therefore go. (3.3.29-34)

Because non-Venetian traders contribute to the city's economic well-being, Venice has laws in place to protect their rights. Therefore, reasons Antonio, Shylock will have his bond and there's nothing anybody can do about it.

Act 4, Scene 1
Portia

PORTIA
Tarry, Jew.
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst the 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.
In which predicament I say thou stand'st,
For it appears by manifest proceeding
That indirectly, and directly too,
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant, and thou hast incurred
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke. (4.1.361-378)

Not only does Portia prevent Shylock from shedding "one drop of [Antonio's] Christian blood" (see quote #11), she also points out that, according to the city's laws, anyone who tries to kill a Venetian citizen shall have all his goods seized. Portia is being tough, and we find it a little off-putting that she feels the need to destroy Shylock's whole life when she's already proven her point. On the other hand, we have to wonder whether Shylock would have gone through with killing Antonio or spared him at the last second.

PORTIA [as Balthazar]
Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are "a pound of flesh."
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh,
But, in the cutting it, 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. (4.1.318-325)

Up until this point, it seems like Venice's strict adherence to the law is going to have a terrible outcome: Shylock will indeed get his "pound of flesh" and, in the process, Antonio will likely bleed to death. But here, Portia manipulates the law and saves the day.  

PORTIA [as Balthazar]
Then must the Jew be merciful.
SHYLOCK
On what compulsion must I? tell me that.
PORTIA
The quality of mercy is not strained.
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.
[...]
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant
   there. (4.1.188-193; 199-212)

Portia insists that Shylock should be merciful because God is.  We also notice that the notion of mercy in this passage is associated with the Christian concept of salvation.

Shylock

SHYLOCK
Is that the law?
PORTIA [as Balthaar]
Thyself shalt see the act.
For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice more than thou desir'st. (4.1.327-330)

Portia is about to beat Shylock at his own game, and she rubs it in. She has every reason to feel smug, but is she violating her own professed principles of mercy here? 

Antonio

ANTONIO
I have heard
Your Grace hath ta'en great pains to qualify
His rigorous course; but since he stands obdurate,
And that no lawful means can carry me
Out of his envy's reach, I do oppose
My patience to his fury, and am armed
To suffer with a quietness of spirit
The very tyranny and rage of his. (4.1.7-14)

Antonio has flipped the situation to make himself seem like a martyr. Sure, Shylock is pursuing his fury, but he's also pursuing the law. Antonio now tries to make himself look like a long-suffering saint. His humility and piety are a far cry from the jovial way in which he willingly took up the bond in the first place.

ANTONIO
Two things provided more: that for this favor
He presently become a Christian;
The other, that he do record a gift,
Here in the court, of all he dies possessed
Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter. (4.1.402-406)

Things just keep getting worse for Shylock. Even though Antonio has (mercifully?) offered to reduce his penalty, Shylock must convert to Christianity as a condition of the new deal. As scholar Ann Barton points out in the Riverside Shakespeare's introduction to the play, Shylock "stumbles from the court [...] stripped of almost everything, including his religion" (286).