Explanatory Notes for Act 4, Scene 1
From The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co.
"The trial Scene, with its tugging vicissitudes of passion and its hush of terrible expectation, - now ringing with the Jew's sharp,
spiteful snaps of malice, now made musical with Portia's strains of eloquence, now holy with Antonio's tender breathings of friendship, and dashed, from time to time, with Gratiano's fierce jets of wrath and fiercer jets of mirth, - is hardly surpassed in tragic
power anywhere; and as it forms the catastrophe proper, so it concentrates the interest of the whole play" (Hudson).
1. What, an exclamation of attention. See below, lines 46 and
III of this scene.
5, 6. empty From. Shakespeare also uses the modern empty of.
We say free from.
8. obdurate, accent on the second syllable.
9. And that, and because.
16. Shylock shows great deference to the Duke, but to no one
else except to Portia, disguised as a young lawyer, during that part
of her discourse which agrees with his claims.
29. a royal merchant. See above, note on iii. 2. 242.
34. a gentle [Gentile] answer. See above, note on ii. 6. 51.
37. the due and forfeit, the forfeiture which is due.
38. let the danger light, etc. Such a threat could have had
little weight with the Doge of Venice, the charter of which was
not revokable as the gift of any prince.
43. But [I'll] say, it is my humor [my fancy or determination to
act thus]. Shylock is not using the word humor in the later restricted sense which Jonson applied to it of a ruling passion or
propensity. By some this passage is punctuated: But, say it is my humor, i.e. suppose it is my humor.
47. a gaping pig, a pig's head served as a dish at table.
50. "for affection [either for love or dislike - sympathy or antipathy, - being the] master of passion, sways it [passion] to the
mood of what it [affection] likes or loathes." This, the reading of
Knight, has the advantage of changing only one letter of the original and doubtless corrupt text, master for masters. Affection,
emotion produced through the senses by external objects, is here
as above, iii. I. 62, distinguished from passion, emotion stirred
from inward feeling.
56. woollen bag-pipe. Woollen is the reading of all the old editions and doubtless refers to the material with which the bag containing the reservoir of wind which blows the pipe is covered.
62. A losing suit, one in which I lose my money.
68. Every offence [resentment for an injury], is not a hate. In
his reply Shylock takes offence to mean affront, insult.
69. a serpent sting thee twice. Dr. Furness calls attention to the
hiss in these words.
70. think [remember], you question [are arguing] with the Jew,
[a man on whose hard, cruel nature you are wasting your words].
Compare As You Like It, iii. 4. 38: "I met the Duke yesterday
and had much question with him."
76. and [command them] to make no noise.
82. with all brief and plain conveniency, with such directness and
brevity as is fitting the case.
92. slavish parts. Notice the actor's figure of the world conceived as a play in which the various parts or roles are distributed.
Compare As You Like It, ii. 7. 142: "And one man in his time
plays many parts."
105. Bellario, a learned doctor. The reputation of Bellario, Portia's cousin (see above, iii. 4. 50), must be conceived of as such
that (like one Discalzio, a famous jurist contemporary with Shakespeare and also of Padua), Portia could feel sure that the Doge
would consult him in a case of such moment. She was thus able
to arrange her plot during the time intervening between Bassanio's
departure from Belmont and the day of the trial, and to come into
court as young Balthasar accredited as a judge - not as an advocate - by the letter of Bellario.
129. And for thy life let justice be accused. Let justice be impeached that she allows a being so cruel to live.
131. Pythagoras, of Samos, who held the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Compare Twelfth Night, iv. 2. 54:
"Clown. What is the opinion of Pythagoras concerning wild-fowl? Malvolio. That the soul of our grandam might haply inhabit a bird."
134. a wolf who hang'd for human slaughter. A connection has
been surmised between Shylock and the Jewish Doctor Lopez, an
alleged conspirator against the queen, hanged at Tyburn in the very
year of the earliest performance of this play. The affair made a
great noise, and the hatred of the people was roused against the
Jews, of which there were not a few in England, although their
presence was not officially allowed.
134. who hang'd for human slaughter. This clause is an absolute
one, and not dependent on the rest of the sentence. It is variously
called by the grammarians a nominative absolute or by the Latin
term nominativus pendens, the hanging nominative.
162. no impediment to let him lack, no hindrance to his receiving.
165. whose, for he. Compare King Lear, v. 3. 46:
"To send the old and miserable king
To some retention and appointed guard;
Whose [for his] age has charms in it."
170. your place, Portia's place as a judge would be on the dais,
or lower platform below the Doge's seat, or possibly beside him.
171. the difference That holds this present question, the dispute that
is the cause of this discussion.
182. Then must the Jew be merciful. Portia means to convey no
idea of compulsion in her word must, but Shylock misunderstands
184. The quality of mercy. Notice how naturally this splendid
passage rises from the necessities of the dialogue. Compare Ecclesiasticus, xxxv. 20: "Mercy is seasonable in the time of affliction
as clouds of rain in the time of drought."
204. if thou follow, if you insist on your plea in all its strictness.
208. discharge the money, i.e. the debt.
210. twice the sum. See below, line 234, thrice. The disparity
215. Wrest once the law, etc., for once bend the law to your
217. curb ... of his will. Compare 1 Henry IV, iii. 1. 171:
"And curbs himself even of his natural scope."
223. A Daniel come to judgment. Compare The History of
Susanna, 45: "The Lord raised up the holy spirit of a young
child (youth in the Authorized Version), whose name was Daniel."
Daniel also detected the imposture of the priests of Bel in the Apocryphal History of Bel and the Dragon.
241. power, pronounced as two syllables.
248. Hath full relation, is fully applicable. For it is the meaning
of the law that the penalty attached to each bond shall be paid as
therein provided; and this applies to the present case.
251. more elder. Shakespeare frequently employs the double
comparative. Compare The Tempest, i. 2. 439: "his more braver
254. 'Nearest his heart.' When Shylock suggested the forfeit
he stipulated for
"an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me."
The specification 'nearest his heart' must be supposed an agreement at the signing of the bond.
255. balance. This word was used both as a singular and a
plural in Shakespeare's time. Confusion as to the number of
words ending in a sibilant, s or c, is very frequent.
275. speak me fair in death, speak kindly of me when I am
dead. Compare Henry VIII, iv. 2. 32: "Yet thus far, Griffith,
give me leave to speak him."
277. love, lover, true friend.
278. Repent but you, only so much as regret that you have lost
your friend, and your friend regrets not that he pays your debt.
281. with all my heart. A jest such as this heightens the pathos
of the situation and is very true to life. Compare John of Gaunt's
jest on his name when he is on his death-bed, Richard II, ii. 1.
283. Which for who was common, and used at times for emphasis.
Compare the Lord's Prayer.
296. Barrabas, so spelled and pronounced by Shakespeare and
Marlowe. Shylock affects to be shocked at the impiety of these
305. Tarry a little. Much has been written on the law involved
in this famous case. Portia's first plea, that the law allowed the
pound of flesh but no drop of blood, is a pure quibble, and would
have been accepted in no court of Europe. Her second plea, that
the portion cut must be precisely a pound, and neither more or
less, is no better, as the law cannot demand, in the performance
of a contract, an utter impossibility. The third plea of Portia, that
in which she invokes the law of Venice against any alien who plots
against the life of a citizen, is sound and sufficient; and on this the
case is properly decided.
327. a just pound, an exact pound. Compare an equal pound,
above, i. 3. 150.
328. in the substance, in the weight.
334. Compare i. 3. 47.
335. pause. At this point the play hangs between tragedy and
comedy. Shylock had sworn to have his bond. Might he not
have kept his oath and, taking his bloody forfeit, have pulled down
Antonio and himself in one common ruin? Such sympathy as we
feel for Shylock is, to a large degree, the result of the more tolerant
spirit of modern time. With his choice here made, - and that
choice involves an abject confession that "sufferance is the badge of all our tribe," - even our respect vanishes, and we see in Shylock nothing but the malevolent and remorseless usurer, cowed in the moment of his long-sought revenge and slinking away foiled
and baffled. It is plain that The Merchant of Venice could not have contained the happy story of Portia and the caskets and at
the same time have ended as a tragedy.
352. party, here used in its legal sense, a party to a suit.
357. predicament. This word was originally a term in logic,
meaning much the same as category. It had already reached its
popular acceptance in Shakespeare's time.
362. formerly, a legal term, equivalent to the more modern
363. Down [on your knees], therefore.
372. Which humbleness [submission] may drive [commute]
unto a fine.
373. Ay, for the state, not for Antonio. The half which comes
to the state may be commuted to a fine, but not the half which
comes to Antonio.
380-385. So [If it] please my lord ... To quit [release] the fine for one half of his goods [the half which the state was to have received], I am content; so [provided that] he [Shylock] will let me
have The other half [which was awarded to me] in use [in trust for
the benefit of Jessica], to render [return] it, Upon his [Shylock's]
death, unto the gentleman That lately stole his daughter.
399. ten more [godfathers] to make up twelve, the number of a
402. desire your grace of pardon. Compare A Midsummer Night's
Dream, iii. 1. 185: "I shall desire you of more acquaintance."
405. serves you not, is not at your command.
412. withal is here a preposition governing ducats and equivalent
to with. This preposition always follows its object. Compare
Measure for Measure, iv. 3. 145: "Her cause and yours I'll perfect him withal." Elsewhere the word performs more the function
of an adverb. See above, iii. 4. 72: "I could not do withal;"
and below, iv. 1. 450.
418. more mercenary, mercenary beyond a desire for the gratification that comes from the doing of a good deed.
447. hold out enemy. Compare Much Ado About Nothing, i.
I. 91: "I will hold friends with you."
451. commandement. Here the old spelling, which is preserved
in the text, conveys the old pronunciation in four syllables and
saves the metre. Compare 1 Henry VI, i. 3. 20: "From him I
have express commandement." Elsewhere in Shakespeare this
word is pronounced as now. See The Winter's Tale, ii. 2. 8.
How to cite the explanatory notes:
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Felix E. Schelling. New York: American Book Co., 1903. Shakespeare Online. 20 Feb. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/merchant_4_1.html >.