“How shalt thou hope for mercy, rend’ring none?” – A take on the final act in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

             

Film adaptation starring Al Pacino, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy irons, and a very good supporting cast

 

http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/12578  Project Gutenberg full version of play for download (go ahead and educate yourself ) 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Merchant_of_Venice Or read an abbreviated synopsis (not recommended) 

        In this, the crescendo of the play,  Shylock is pursuing the last and most vengeful blow he can make onto Venetian society and onto his enemy Antonio in particular. He has been, up to this point, treated as an animal (whom the Venetians still use his “barbarian” services well enough) in the city, he is spat upon by merchants, dehumanized and criticized by all, and finally he is robbed by his very daughter. And in her treachery she has taken from him two bags of ducats and various jewelries that include a ring given to him from his late wife. Worse yet his daughter, as it has been told by Tubal, has thoughtlessly traded that ring for a monkey (Act 3.1.16) and fled with a Christian man (whom is party with Antonio {ironic}) and has denounced Judaism to convert to Christianity. Shylock is left in a state of severe shock and probably views the killing of Antonio as the last move he can make against his unrelenting enemies. His vindication would serve two purposes: on the one hand he can deliver a crushing blow to the one whom has terribly mocked him in public and caused him great pains. And secondly he can lash out at the Venetian people and use their own laws against them to claim one of their own. 

               The vengeful usurer enters the courtroom alone to claim an award of the forfeiture on the bond previously made by himself and the defendant, Antonio. He is pleaded by the Duke of Venice to display mercy for this act and bring the dispute to a peaceful end (Act 4.1.17) but Shylock is inconsolable. He will have only the blood debt written in the bond, even when offered three times the amount he steadfastly refuses (Act 4.1.86). The matter seems to bode unfavorably of the Venetian unless the doctor of law from Padua that the Duke has sent for can determine the legality of the claims presented by shylock. That doctor has sent an emissary in the form of Portia who is heavily disguised as Balthazar the lawyer. Immediately the facts are presented in the case and in the strict order of the law (at Shylocks urging) the penalty is at last legally binding to Antonio. One last time a plea for mercy and an award of three times the ducats loaned is offered if only Shylock would reconsider (Act 4.1.239). 

               Here, blinded by pure hate he chooses only the revenge that is prescribed in the bond. And the reward for his hate and discourse for the Christians is that he is allowed to cut out the pound of Antonio’s flesh. And as the tension builds and Shylock can almost grasp his victory he is halted and burdened by a surprise technical aspect of the very law that would free him to do his will. In his haste he had secured the bond and not explicitly ensured the safety of Antonio during the excising of his flesh with the supervision of a surgeon. For this he is only to remove the noted pound of flesh as per the agreement and since he did not list any detail about blood he can only take the flesh. This means if his cut yields any more or less of the said pound or possesses a mere drop of blood then he will be sentenced to death and his wealth confiscated. So in his blind hatred, he has overlooked a technical caveat that has threatened his revenge. Faced with these impossible terms he then recants his wish to cut Antonio’s body in exchange for the sum previously offered. The lawyer refused his request and says that he will only receive the justice he most desperately wanted. Shylock then decides to drop the case and leave but is further detained for another infraction that he caused earlier due to his preoccupation with revenge and hatred. 

               He had originally made the bond under the false terms that he would not seek Antonio’s death or the pound of flesh; he said it was a “merry sport” and an act of “friendship” (Act 1. 3. 172). His appearance in court now is in direct conflict of the terms he had agreed upon earlier, and for that he has conspired to take a citizen’s life while he himself is considered an alien. In Venice this carries a sentence of death and confiscation of all wealth. He is pardoned by the Duke for his life and is fined. The other claimant in the case is the newly freed Antonio, he will let Shylock keep his wealth and home if he upon his death he relinquishes his money and title to his daughter and her new husband. And perhaps the most devastating of all the sentences is that he requires Shylock to renounce Judaism and become a Christian. This effectively “kills” Shylock as a human and transforms him into another being, one which he greatly loathes. 

               By the end of the court scene my initial reaction was to empathize with Shylock. He was dealt an underhanded blow that may well have been pre-prepared for him before he entered that court room (the Duke expressed his ability to dissolve this case at his will if he thought it appropriate Act 4.1.105). And for all the wanton usage of wholesale prejudice against him, his award in the case seems like a fitting prize. But that same emotion that caused me to take up Shylocks plight has fostered the very undoing of him altogether. He is not a noble character turned bad but a vehicle to propagating the evil deeds of men while hiding behind lofty tenets. 

               Throughout the play he has schemed and hoped for a downfall in his enemy so that he could be advantaged by it. He has consumed himself with rectifying all the wrongs he perceives as being done to him and his people so unfairly. He has become a living expression of the object of his rage and now is fully consumed because of it.  This has caused him great many disservices along the way. He has lost his daughter to a Christian whom has taken her away and with her countless ducats and jewelry that are being spent most frivolously. He is not being paid back the money he loaned Antonio (had he not been seeking revenge, would he have openly loaned so much as to have to compile it from another usurer under the known circumstances of the borrower? What of Tubal? Will he be paid back now?). And finally he is being deprived his most coveted revenge and having it replaced with crippling sanctions that are placed on him that effectively “kill” any semblance of his known lifestyle and humble him more severely than he could have imagined. 

               I feel the moral of the court scene is not so reliant on the question of prejudice versus privilege or mercy and justice but more on the righteousness of a person’s spirit. This act has clearly demonstrated that intolerance only breeds more intolerance; and these parents can only bear ill fruit. Nothing good can become of either the Venetian’s conduct or the conduct of Shylock. The only way to relieve this cycle would be to remove what it feeds on. And in this case the compounding of ill will and violence are what have been the root causes for all the trouble both sides suffer. It is always easy in theory to explain the path to resolution for these situations but the choices that people make will have an effect unforeseen in their futures and when made under the duress of reality they seem a bit easier to condone in the form of revenge. I think that justice was ultimately served in the case but not to the liking of either party. The ignorant and pompous Antonio was spared his life and must realize how close he had come to death by way of his bigoted manner. This would most likely serve him to be reminded of what is possible due to his actions and to take care in what he says and agrees to based on feeling superior to anyone. But through his very living will lose a friend he seemingly does not want to share. And he will be lonely as Bassanio and his new wife have each other. Shylock’s justice comes to him in the form of being completely removed from everything tainted with his ways of vengeance. He can no longer live the same life that affords him the time and pleasure to conceive his views on Christians and Jews. He is also no longer among the same crowd of lenders who may feed his hatred. And lastly he has been removed from his very daughter because of his ways. He may now gain a more level perspective about his life’s direction and decide what is most important to him. I think that for the condition the characters entered with respect to their abilities they have left better for the experience.

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