Portia’s Witty Technique of Defeating Shylock

The conclusion of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice must, according to a theatergoer, be one of smiles and happy sighs. What other explanation could there be for the great number of lighthearted moments throughout the play than that it must be a comedy? Yet, unlike some other Shakespeare comedies, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or As You Like It, Merchant presents an episode that could very easily have tragic consequences, and only narrowly avoids such tragedy. At the start of Act IV scene i, aside from a legal view, the cards are stacked against Shylock. As a seemingly bloodthirsty, Jewish moneylender in a Venice courtroom, even the judge sides with Antonio; however, to the sadness of the audience, Antonio simply hasn’t a chance against Shylock. Fortunately, the appearance of transvestites in Shakespeare’s works often indicates a happy ending and Merchant is no exception as Portia steps in and saves the day. During the extremely lengthy courtroom scene in Act IV, much action occurs. In fact, the play flips entirely over during the one scene so that happiness may be restored to the heroes of the play, namely every Christian in attendance. The action turns just as Antonio is asked to bear “his breast” (IV.i.251) so that a pound of flesh may be taken out “nearest his heart” (IV.i.253). Even at this point Portia appears to act against Antonio by supporting the law and Shylock. If the turning point of the play does not occur precisely when it does, a quick end could be made of Antonio and the play itself. As Shylock mentions the bond eight times in the scene before Portia fights him with it, what apparently sets her creativity in this direction occurs between lines 255 through 262. During these lines Portia, perhaps stalling until an idea hits her, argues with Shylock to allow a surgeon at hand to save Antonio’s life. Shylock argues that “’tis not in the bond” (IV.i.262) and therefore not allowed; this same loophole is precisely how Portia later saves Antonio’s life.

A difficult feat accomplished in this scene is taking a character, Shylock, for whom only a small amount of sympathy is allowed by the audience, and turning him into completely a villain. This task completes itself subtly through the sometimes inherent biases of Shakespeare’s audiences with the help of slight (and sometimes not so slight) hints from characters in the play. Portia asks “Are there balance here / To weigh the flesh” (IV.i.254-255) in her attempt to stall Antonio’s implied execution (implied because a pound of flesh nearest the heart would surely result in death). Aside from pure shock value, are the lines really so necessary to the plot or action? With the absurdity already taking place in the courtroom (transvestites fighting over a pound of flesh), the audience of Merchant would certainly pardon Portia if she had a faster wit and did not need stalling time. Thus, if these lines are unnecessary to the plot, then the light symbolism behind the words in these lines can be considered relevant to the play. The word “balance” evokes imagery of comparisons, and Merchant is a play of striking contrasts, “the flesh” being especially relative. Females are weighed against males in the courtroom as Portia wins a trial for Antonio, against Shylock. Christianity is weighed against Judaism as the loveable Antonio and the evil yet pathetic Shylock both act as defenders of their respective faiths. The lines continue as Shylock confesses that he has the balances ready (IV.i.56) illustrating his happy anticipation for the bloodshed that lies ahead. The “Blood Libel” that Jews use human blood to cook their matzo was no doubt fresh in the minds of Shakespeare’s audiences, as it persisted popularly long before and after Shakespeare’s own lifespan. Shylock’s eagerness only confirms what an anti-Semitic audience would already assume about him.

The idea of a “balance” returns as differences in religious ideology are cleverly used by Portia’s fight for Antonio’s life. Portia’s “stalling” continues when she asks for “some surgeon…on [Shylock’s] charge” (IV.i.57) to save Antonio from bleeding to death (IV.i.58). In this line, Portia expresses her fears that the worst possible scenario may take place, particularly, a pound of flesh being carved from Antonio. Having a surgeon nearby would be in Antonio and Portia’s best interests. At the same time, she mentions that the surgeon would be paid for by Shylock, a detail of which she knows only Shylock should take note. Shylock asks “Is it so nominated in the bond” which can be looked at from two equally anti-Jewish angles. From one perspective, Shylock is avoiding the surgeon because he’d have pay for it himself, which both affirms a stereotype of Jews and continues a trend in Shylock’s typical interests throughout the play. From the second perspective, Shylock doesn’t want a surgeon there because he wants Antonio’s death. Likely, both these perspectives are meant for consideration. Shylock doesn’t want the surgeon because of financial reasons while everyone else thinks he just wants Antonio’s death; this is a brilliant setup by Portia as she uses Shylock’s inherent weakness to destroy his image of humaneness.

Another interesting addition by Shakespeare is the use of “charity” by Portia. This too is used to evoke one response from the Christians and another from Shylock. The Oxford English Dictionary places great emphasis on the New Testament and Christianity’s relationship with “charity,” as one such definition is “Christian love” and another is “Christian benignity of disposition expressing itself in Christ-like conduct.” In comparison, in Judaism “charity” is best translated into the Hebrew word tzedakah; however, one of tzedakah’s best English translations is “justice.” As tzedakah is a well-known and important concept in Judaism, it is extremely probable that Shylock knows of it. Assuming this to be the case, when Portia comments that “’Twere good you do so much for charity” (IV.i.61) and Shylock replies “I cannot find it, ‘tis not in the bond.” (IV.i.62), it is quite likely that the two characters had a misunderstanding over definition, in Portia’s favor. The Christian view is that Portia asks Shylock to save Antonio’s life mercifully and that Shylock acts coldheartedly and un-Christian by his refusal to do so. From the Jewish perspective Shylock is being asked to be just. By his referring to the bond on line 62, he is following justice by adhering to the legal document in his possession; for abiding by the law he is therefore righteous and fair. At this point Portia needs only a few more steps taken before she controls the trial’s entire outcome and ousts the advantage from Shylock.


  1. “charity” Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson

and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED

Online. Oxford University Press. 28 Oct. 2002.



  1. “tzedaka(h)” Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J. A. Simpson

and E. S. C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED

Online. Oxford University Press. 28 Oct. 2002.



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