Act 4 opens with a trial scene in which the audience is led to believe that Shylok will be claiming his side of the bargain- a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The entire affair seems bound by the contract, with Shylock smugly over-satisfied by his power over Antonio. The court hopes that Shylock will show mercy and remorse, but Shylock is filled only with a desire for revenge and a vengeful malice toward Antonio. Even when offered twice the balance of Antonio’s debt, Shylock prefers rather to claim Antonio’s flesh, and exercise his power over him. Shylock has the law on his side, and argues that the slave-owning Christians would refuse to let their slaves free. His argument seems logical, but free of mercy or humanity. He says, “I answer you: The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought as mine, and I will have it.” (IV.i.99-100) Portia enters, dressed as a young lawyer’s secretary, and finds in Antonio’s favor; claiming that Shylock’s contract does not allow him to claim blood, only flesh. She states that if he cannot claim Antonio’s flesh without drawing blood, he must not only forfeit the bargain, but must also will his estate to his daughter and Lorenzo.
Granted, Shylock is the villain in this play, but his punishment seems a little harsh. Not only has he lost the money he loaned Bassanio, his servant, his daughter, his ring, his estate (bequeathed to the man who stole his daughter), but he must also give up his profession and his religion. Throughout the play, Shylock is viewed negatively and clearly hates Antonio, but that hatred seems justified. Shylock has been spit on, persecuted, and harassed by Antonio. Antonio and Bassanio are the mean kids on the playground that pick on the littler, weaker kids like Shylock. He finally has a chance to assert power over Antonio, however merciless and vengeful, and Antonio’s friends scheme to take it away from him.
Another character to consider in this scene is Portia. Because of her gender, she is continually stripped of power and choice, and instead at the will of her dead father or potential future-husbands. However, stripped of these major powers, she asserts herself in other ways. Portia is continually surprising the audience, and the other characters, with her cleverness and ingenuity. If Antonio and Bassanio are the mean kids on the playground, she’s the smart one that warns them when the teacher is coming and lies to keep them out of detention. Even after she saves Antonio’s life, she tricks Bassanio (who hasn’t recognized his cross-dressing wife) into giving away the ring he swore to treasure. “An if your wife be not a madwoman and know how well I have deserved the ring, she would not hold out enemy forever, for giving it to me.” (IV.i.445-448) Later, in Scene II, Portia schemes with Nerissa, eagerly looking forward to embarrassing Bassanio and Gratiano about giving away their rings. Portia overcomes her lack of power by manipulating situations in her favor.
Both Shylock and Portia attempt to manipulate situations to assert power over Antonio and Bassanio. While Shylock is driven by revenge, Portia is merely compensating for the lack of power her gender is allowed. Regardless, the outcome seems mostly to depend on who your friends are.