[The trial in some respects resembles the 1597 case of Gurlyn suing Oxford and his Countess for a debt concerning promises of money back in 1585. Justice vs. mercy was involved, and common law verdicts vs. chancery edicts (Anderson 296).]
Before the Duke of Venice appear Antonio (because a person he loves took his money, ran off, and got married) and Shylock (because a person he loves took his money, ran off, and got married). The Duke and Antonio are chummy, whereas the Duke announces, "call the Jew" (IV.i.14). Despite the Duke's hopeful cajoling, Shylock refuses any amount of money to drop the "pound of flesh" deal. Why? "I'll not answer that; / But say it is my humor, is it answer'd?" (IV.i.42-43). And he's right: he owes no one an explanation. Legal expert Bellario sends a letter with a clerk (Nerissa in disguise) announcing Balthazar in his stead (Portia in disguise).
The playwright flatters Queen Elizabeth through Portia's learning (IV.i.157) (Ogburn and Ogburn 232). But soon, Portia herself enters and asks, "Which is the merchant here? and which the Jew?" (IV.i.174) -- exactly! There's no real difference in their mutual antipathy for one another. Since the bond is in order, Portia says that Shylock will have to be merciful. He asks, "On what compulsion must I? tell me that" (IV.i.183), and she says, "The quality of mercy is not strain'd" (IV.i.184ff) and proceeds with a lovely speech on Christian forgiveness: good sentences and well pronounc'd. The scene pits that reductive notion of the Old Testament law against the New Testament forgiveness. Shylock is unmoved and the butchery is prepared for. "In a sense, this reflects a great philosophical struggle between Jew and Christian (as interpreted through Christian thought) between the letter and the spirit" (Asimov 536). The reference to Daniel alludes to the Daniel in The History of Susanna, the apocryphal book where Daniel cross-examines two guilty of perjory (Asimov 537).
Gratiano claims that he is partially persuaded by Pythagorean notions of the transmigration of souls, since Shylock clearly has a dog's, or wolf's -- and Gratiano here is royally missing the point of even the "pagan" Pythagoras, who proposed an appreciation for the souls of all things. Bassanio and Gratiano insist they'd chuck their wives to save Antonio. Bassanio here, "not when he stood before it, proves worthy of the leaden casket" (Goddard, I 108). But the women are naturally a bit miffed, and Shylock offers real perspective: "These be the Christian husbands" (IV.i.294) -- and his daughter is married to such a one! "It is an odd point in favor of Shylock, and one rarely remarked upon, that despite what his daughter has done to him, he regrets her marriage because of his belief that a Christian would make an unkind husband. It would seem he still loves his daughter" (Asimov 538).
Depending on the production, you may get the sense that Shylock will go through with what will amount to an execution, but not necessarily. Probably we never find out since, at the key moment, Portia interrupts: "Tarry a little, there is something else" (IV.i.305). If we're sticking to the letter of the law, then Shylock may have his flesh but may not spill one drop of Christian blood. When Shylock asks then for the money instead, this is denied. And for plotting the death of a citizen, he even forfeits his own wealth. Half of this will be taken, and the other half kept in trust until Shylock's death, at which time Lorenzo will inherit. "Shakespeare shows a startling familiarity with the notorious Alien Statute of Venice, which provided the exact same penalty: forfeiture of half an estate to the Republic and half to the wronged party, plus a discretionary death sentence, to any foreigner (including Jews) who attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen" (Farina 61). Oh, and also, Shylock has to convert to Christianity. Gratiano acts as a voice of an exultant mob, getting "revenge" on Shylock. "The text gives us no clue as to how Shylock might leave, and the scene continues equably after he has gone with no suggestion that those remaining have seen anything that might upset them" (Wells 161). Shylock's last enigmatic words are: "I am content" (IV.i.394) and "I pray you give me leave to go from hence, / I am not well. Send the deed after me, / And I will sign it" (IV.i.195-197). I'm feeling a little sick myself.
"Marlowe had given his Jew in The Jew of Malta an unrepentant and horrible death" (Asimov 540). Is this more "merciful"? In any event, there's lots of smug rejoicing. Portia refuses payment but requests Bassanio's ring. He naturally is reluctant, but she acts indignant and he relents.
Is this a symbolic casket scene in which Portia "is subjected to the same test to which she has submitted her suitors"? "Can she detect hidden gold under a leaden exterior?" (Goddard, I 101). She is traditionally considered one of the most delightful of Shakespeare's romantic heroines, but after her wondrous "mercy" speech, she quickly reverts to legalese, and the "mercy" she insists Shylock drop to his knees to beg of the Duke is clearly not the same thing. The Duke is more merciful than Portia seems to want, so she ends up seeming nasty. Her words on mercy were "Good sentences, and well pronounc'd" (I.ii.10), but "better if well followed." Despite the eloquent "quality of mercy" speech, we're left with a touch of uncertainty about Portia because, at least, of her treatment of Morocco (Wells 163). Worse, though, is what a rare few are willing to decide: "Portia is the golden casket" (Goddard, I 112).
Nerissa will get Gratiano's ring too. Tee hee hee.
"Surely one must see the contrast with Shylock, who would not have given up his wife's ring for anything" (Asimov 542).