Act IV scene 1 is an intense scene in the play where we see many of the play’s main themes such as justice and mercy, money and status, revenge, loyalty, love and prejudice and tolerance.
Shakespeare presents a harsh character in Shylock the Jew, but the fact that he also gives him the chance to speak more than any other European playwright preceding him would suggest that his portrayal is not conventional but much more complex for example in his words in Act III scene 1, lines 57-58: “I am a Jew.
Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions?” Much of Shakespeare’s enduring appeal has been in his amazing portrayal of the complexities of the human condition for example Hamlet or Macbeth. Traditionally Jews were the evil villains of Elizabethan drama, frequently Machiavellian or greedy but unlike his contemporaries Shakespeare’s characters were never simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but embody the complex mix within each of us that makes us human.
Analysis of Act IV scene 1, in three different versions of The Merchant Of Venice Analysis of Act IV scene 1, in three different versions of The Merchant Of Venice Analysis of Act IV scene 1, in three different versions of The Merchant Of Venice
The main dilemma in staging this play today is in the consideration of Shakespeare’s possible anti-semitism and/or sympathies towards his character and indeed whether Shylock only represents the Jewish people or whether he is symbolic of oppression of minority races in general.
Through Shylock’s forced conversion in this scene we are reminded of the conversions of other religions according to the ruler of the time such as Henry VIII. This would suggest that Shakespeare is using Shylock as more than a symbol of ‘Jewishness’. In this piece of coursework I will be examining mainly how sympathetic or unsympathetic the various versions seem to be and how each Director has succeeded in making the character of Shylock worthy of Shakespeare’s realism.
Jews were traditionally viewed as outsiders and were not citizens. Christians as far back as the 11th century could not lend money without interest and many Jews earned a living from this ‘profession’ as they could not join the artisan guilds. As they became their own debt collectors they soon became the target of resentment. A myth was born; with which Shakespeare’s audience would have been familiar, of ritual murder or ‘blood libel’ that Jews would kill adult Christians. It is to this myth to which Shakespeare seems to allude in the ‘pound of flesh’ incident in this scene.
Shakespeare is original in showing us the extent to which Shylock is oppressed by Christians surrounding him and it is through this that Shakespeare succeeds in drawing out sympathy from his audience.
Analysis of Act IV scene 1
In the text of Act IV scene 1 before we meet Shylock he is described as “a stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, incapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy”. Antonio describes Shylock’s spirit as being full of “tyranny and rage”. When Shylock enters into the scene the Duke challenges him saying “The world thinks, and I think so too, that thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice To the last hour of act, and then ’tis thought Thou’lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange than is thy strange apparent cruelty”. At this point the audience is immediately drawn into the suspense of the scene.
The Duke speaks for everyone in hoping that Shylock will back down. The combination of the Duke’s speech on mercy and his hope for “a gentle answer” with Shylock’s contemptuous reply serves to further provoke the audience. Calling Shylock ‘Jew’ instead of using his name also manipulates the audience’s reactions into thinking of the stereotype rather than the individual. At this point the Duke says “Let him stand before our face” suggests Shylock should stand centre stage for this speech. Shylock’s reply to the Duke and onlookers is so long winded that he immediately loses favour.
This speech would be effective if he was standing up as he speaks about his values. It is a central point in the scene as it is his first opportunity to defend himself but he does not elicit sympathy from his onlookers.
He is instead twisting, evasive and difficult: “So can I give no reason, nor I will not, more than a lodged hatred and a certain loathing I bear Antonio”. He ends this key speech in his defence with an open admission of his hatred. His illustrations of animals, later paralleled in Antonio’s speech, are deliberately offensive. He plays with the words of Bassanio, twists them and turns them back on the speaker providing a quickfire dialogue which builds up the tension from the outset. The repeated references to “the Jew” suggest an element of anti-semitism.
The imagery of the wolf and the lamb is very effective as it evokes both blood lust for an innocent creature and also the key theme of religion in the form of the lamb of God. His “Jewish heart” again evokes the stereotype of the unfeeling moneylender.
The Duke’s repeated pleas for mercy, a key theme in the scene, serve only to enforce Shylock’s determination to have exactly what he is owed: the pound of flesh. Ironically this steadfast and unrelenting desire to have his ‘bond’ is what ultimately results in his downfall at the end of the scene. There is a certain irony in Shylock’s swearing on “our holy Sabbath” to have his bond as God teaches forgiveness. His demand of “What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?” conveys his arrogance as he seems utterly convinced of being in the right.
When Shylock challenges his onlookers as to their treatment of slaves, this could suggest a defence of those oppressed and support the view that Shakespeare’s position was not only pro-Jewish but more globally in support of oppressed minorities in general. The climax of Shylock’s claim is spoken with great force and evokes some sympathy finally when he alludes to how the pound of flesh “is dearly bought”. I would exploit this line as a key point in his speech. When he demands the fatal reply from the Court it is ironic as it is the intricacies of the law of Venice which eventually condemns him. He could conceivably be holding his ‘bond’ in his hand at this stage for maximum visual impact.
Bassanio’s words “The Jew shall have my flesh, blood, bones and all” are somewhat reminiscent of Shylock’s earlier words in Act III scene I: “I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions?” His reference to “one drop of blood” also sets the scene for what will unfold and heightens the audience’s suspense as to a possible blood libel.
Gratiano’s pun on ‘sole’ and ‘soul’ indicate for us how Shylock is sharpening his knife. At this point sympathy for Shylock must be at its lowest as he does indeed come across as having ‘bloody’ and ‘ravenous’ desires and he again seems to dismiss Bassanio’s words with contempt. Antonio and Bassanio must surely end this section feeling thoroughly pessimistic. Their speech would surely be filled with tension and a desperate sense of urgency.
With Portia’s arrival, however, the mood immediately lightens. As a symbol of Christianity her determined pleas for mercy provide hope for a more positive outcome and compel the audience further. Even Portia refers initially to Shylock as “the Jew”. Her lyrical and moving speech regarding the “quality of mercy” dropping “as the gentle rain from heaven” contrasts sharply with Antonio’s earlier speech on Shylock’s lack of mercy: “You may as well forbid the mountain pines to wag their high tops and to make no noise when they are fretten with the gusts of heaven”. It also contrasts with Shylock’s short punctuated sentences.
When Portia suggests that Shylock will be blessed in return for showing mercy it is loaded with irony as at the end he is granted mercy regardless of not having done the same. Shylock’s patience seems to be running out when he challenges Portia’s words: “My deeds upon my head, I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond”. I imagine this said with controlled anger.
Throughout this speech Shylock remains determined and unmoved. He continues to make religious references and begins to compliment Portia on her apparent wisdom. He recites passages from his bond one imagines in a tone of expectation at things going his way. When Bassanio and Gratiano speak with great emotion of their own wives whom they would sacrifice for Antonio’s sake, their words are contrasted with Shylock’s to great effect: “I have a daughter”. This for the first time really underlines the pain that Shylock has been caused and shows that rather than being a man incapable of emotion, that he too has suffered greatly and that this is at the root of his determination to have what he is rightfully owed.
The change in mood at this point makes Portia’s verdict even more shocking and sudden. Ironically Shylock who seemed earlier to know every word of his bond now seems somewhat uncertain for the first time as Portia recites the word of the law to him: “Is that the law?” He then persists in demanding “the bond thrice” and seems suddenly unsettled, edgy and in a hurry to depart. This is conveyed through his short, punctuated speech.
Towards the end of the scene in a dramatic and ironic role reversal we see Shylock begging for his livelihood and his life: “Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that. You take my house, when you do take the prop That doth sustain my house; you take my life, When you do take the means whereby I live”. His poignant words “I am content” in reply to the verdict granted by the Court I imagine being said with utmost humility. His claims of being ‘not well’ could elicit sympathy from the audience. We are reminded here of him as not only being a cantankerous man but primarily an old man, fragile and ephemeral like other humans.
It is on this note that Shakespeare chooses to herald Shylock’s exit.
Discussion of version 1
The Channel 4 television version was produced and directed by Alan Horrox and starred Bob Peck as Shylock and Benjamin Whitrow as Antonio. This version was very traditional it was set in Venice in the sixteenth century and was filmed both in studio (Millennium studios) and on location in Venice.
Music is also used in this version both during Portia’s speech on mercy and again when Shylock is going to cut Antonio this adds to the suspense of the scene.
This version portrays Shylock in parts as a harsh character for whom you would show less sympathy. He is portrayed as a haughty character and points his finger at Antonio saying “The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought, ’tis mine and I will have it”. In a later part of the scene his haughty attitude is reinforced when he is again asked to show mercy he replies “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” Close up camera work was used effectively at this point. Shylock’s character changes when he feels things are going his way, he grovels to Portia and praises her, he has a look of pleasure on his face when he unsheathes his knife and is ready to cut Antonio.
When Shylock is about to cut Antonio he notices that he has a cross around his neck and so he pushes it over his shoulder demonstrating his dislike of Christianity. However, his attitude changes to one of shock when Portia stops him. From this point onward one is inclined to feel sorry for Shylock as he goes from being quite wealthy to losing everything because of his own stubborn attitude and lack of sympathy. At the very end of the scene when Shylock is on his knees you are inclined to feel sympathetic towards him.
Discussion of version 2
Trevor Nunn directed this version and it starred Henry Goodman as Shylock and David Bamber as Antonio. It was filmed at Pinewood Studios. The setting was very stark with most actors wearing dark suits and it was set in the 1920s in between the two World Wars.
Through this version we see the many different sides to Shylock’s character. At the start of the scene he appears as an old man who has difficulty in walking which elicits a little sympathy. However, Shylock’s character is strong and when he is insisting on his bond the previous feeling of sympathy changes to one of abhorrence. His dislike of both Christianity and Antonio is noted early in the scene by his facial expression when he states, “More than a lodged hate and a certain loathing I bear Antonio, that I follow thus”. Antonio further emphasises Shylock’s Jewishness when he states “As seek to soften that – than which what’s harder? – His Jewish heart.” here showing how Shylock is viewed as hard hearted.
Feelings change again when Shylock says with regard to his daughter “dearly bought” as this evokes sympathy for him and close up camera work is used effectively at this point.
Shylock speaks with anger refusing to show mercy and insisting on his bond. When Bassanio said “Yes, here I tender it for him in the court, Yea, twice the sum, if that will not suffice, I will be bound to pay it ten times o’er On forfeit of my hands, my head, my heart. If this will not suffice, it must appear That malice bears down truth” applause was used effectively to show support for Antonio and to isolate Shylock. Shylock goes on to appear very happy and excited at the prospect of receiving his bond. However, when the tables are turned he is stubborn and refuses to beg for mercy this could evoke anti-semitic feelings as he is portrayed standing alone while Antonio has the support of his Christian friends.
Although Shylock remained seated at the end I still felt sorry for him as he looked old and frail especially when he removed his Jewish hat and cloth placing them on the scales as he left.
Discussion of version 3
This version was directed for television by John Sichel and starred Laurence Olivier as Shylock, Anthony Nichols as Antonio.
The actors all wore Victorian costumes and the setting was like a board meeting with all in attendance sitting round it and the furniture was very ornate. This created a highly pressurised environment.
Shylock was more confident and walked round the table, his voice was strong and facial expressions were used effectively to portray his emotions.
Again we see the confident, stubborn man in early scenes when Shylock is demanding his bond. He shows his disgust and hatred of Antonio both by his facial expression and tone of voice, when he says “a certain loathing I bear Antonio”. He shows his confidence in his demands when he walks about saying “What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?” His feelings show pleasure as he smiles when sharpening his knife to cut his pound of flesh. He speaks with great arrogance when he says, “On what compulsion must I?” showing his determination to have what is owed. There is sarcasm in his voice when he refers to Christian husbands willing to sacrifice their wives for Antonio by saying “These be the Christian husbands.”
The lighting was impressive throughout the scene and there was effective close up camera work during Portia’s speech, for example, when she said, “It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.” and also when Shylock made the statement “I have a daughter” because this focused on Shylock’s suffering for the first time..
In this version Shylock is a more arrogant character. He raises his voice and gets extremely angry and looks shocked and surprised when he asks the question “Is that the law?”
At the very end of the scene you feel sorry for Shylock, as he seems old, fragile and weak. He looks as though he has lost everything in the world and he has to hold onto a pillar for support. He falls to the ground and is helped out of the room. The scene ends with just the sound of Shylock crying outside which is very effective as it emphasises his isolation.
Comparison of versions and personal opinions
Although all three versions told exactly the same story they all had very different settings and portrayed Shylock in a slightly different way although each one elicited sympathy for him.
The Channel 4 version was very colourful and used traditional Shakespearean costumes. Lighting and music were used effectively and the setting gave the impression of a real courtroom. I felt some sympathy for Shylock in this version
The Trevor Nunn version was simplistic, with most actors dressed in dark suits. It gave me the impression of rival mafia style gangs.
The final version, which was done by the National Theatre Company, was my favourite. Laurence Olivier portrayed Shylock as a strong confident character who moved around the room making him appear more arrogant than in the other two versions but also eliciting sympathy. I felt this version was the best as it succeeded in conveying the complexities of Shylock’s character. We saw both arrogance and frailty and I thought it conveyed the story as Shakespeare was trying to put it across in the text.