Address a point or points in the passages below that are most important in understanding Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
Then somebody in Florida sells his soul to the devil, and, before you know it, your little brother is facing a pretty lively light-socket. He insists that you let him off easy because it's the merciful thing to do, but you counter that the two of you had a bargain, and you want justice.
Interesting word, justice. What does it mean, exactly? Justice according to the law? What if there were a law saying, for example, that white men were allowed to own black men? Or that a man can beat his wife, who, incidentally, isn't allowed to vote. Since those laws actually existed in United States history, does that mean they were just?
OK, not so much. "Justice" is clearly tied to something other than the law. Perhaps it's based in religion? Are we talking about divine law? Ahem, the Crusades, ahem?
So there's obviously something else going on in our heads when we think about justice—something like ethics or morality. But what do you do when justice according to the law is not the same as justice according to religion, which is not the same as justice according to morals or human decency? The point is that "justice" is not a word you can throw around like "glue" or "light socket." And yet "justice" has been used to justify a slew of actions – like cutting a pound of flesh from a man's chest. Is this the new Tarantino? No, it's The Merchant of Venice.
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The central theme in the writing included is "justice," which also plays a pivotal part in the conflict between Antonio and Shylock—and its resolution—in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. The point most central to the writing that is necessary to understand the play is that of "justice."
As noted in the writing, there are many forms of justice. The dictionary definition of justice is extensive, but there are key elements that are pertinent to this concept in the play:
- the quality of being just; righteousness
- the administering of deserved punishment or reward
- the moral principle determining just conduct
Shylock has agreed to lend money to Antonio even though he hates him. He does not act justly in the terms he sets up for the loan. For Shylock, it is about making the merchant pay because of his intense dislike for Antonio. Shylock's demand is not just, nor does moral principle guide him. But if the contract stands up in court, the Duke must follow the law and allow Shylock to collect—by removing a pound of Antonio's flesh.
Gratiano comments on Shylock's hate—comparing it to a razor sharp knife:
Thou mak'st thy knife keen; but no metal can,
No, not the hangman's axe, bear half the keenness
Of thy sharp envy. (IV.i.126-128)
Antonio's punishment is not commensurate with his crime—and so, is not just. This correlates to the writing—of a white man owning a black man or the ability of a man to beat his wife. The law may have supported it at one time, but the law was not just. If unable to pay his debt, at most Antonio should be forced to pay a fine or (as was common then) be thrown into debtor's prison. Gratiano goes further and blames justice for who Shylock is—but it is in-name-only justice.
Portia enters, disguised as Balthazar. She questions the "strange nature" of Shylock's lawsuit, but notes that Venetian law supports him. However, she notes that he should be merciful. Shylock demands to know what law can make him be so. Shakespeare has Portia deliver famous lines regarding mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strain'd... (187)
Here Portia attempts to reason with Shylock with regard to how he will collect his justice, by trying to appeal to his "human decency" (of which Shylock has none). Shylock adamantly refuses to reconsider his demands. So Portia agrees that they must follow the established law. To do otherwise would create a dangerous precedent for the future, and it would seem that Shylock as won.
It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established:
'Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error, by the same example
Will rush into the state: it cannot be. (221-225)
Once again, justice will prevail because of the law, but not because the law is just. Shylock is ecstatic! However, Portia is not finished; she finds her loophole within a fine distinction: Shylock has the right under the agreement to take Antonio's flesh, but not to shed his blood while doing so! In this case, we may look to the writing again, noting that justice is not always tied to the law. For Portia's reasoning serves what is ethical and moral (as Shylock's stipulations in the contract with Antonio do not).
Paradoxically, Shylock becomes the recipient of justice—a word he so casually bandied about—but only when it served his cause. Where it would have been used to allow him to kill Antonio, it just as easily (and righteously) justifies Antonio's deliverance from Shylock's wish to harm him.
Professor Leggatt, writing for the New Folger edition(1992), wrote of some commentary: "these readings are allowed rather than compelled by the text, and to a great extent they go against its surface impression." As we have seen, various impressions do occur. Following Professor J. Dover Wilson's suggestion, I have found it helpful to compare MV to other plays thought to have been written before it and that the author invites us, it seems, to do so. Some, puzzled by the matter of regarding the play as a comedy, tragedy or tragicomedy have suggested that it is a fairy story. At any rate, Shakespeare wrote more plays after this one. A comment from Marchette Chute on MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING is interesting: "The other famous characters in the play[along with Beatrice and Benedick] are a couple of local constables named Dogberry and Verges who have much dignity but no sense. They move with the meditative calm of two well-intentioned tortoises, and in their earnest stupidity they do everything wrong. But it is clear in the end that they have done everything right."
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