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Monday, June 11, 2018


(First Published on Volume 01 Issue 02, July 2016)
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The Merchant of Venice is a Shakespearean play which revolves around a loan taken by a Venetian Christian merchant, Antonio, from a Jewish money-lender, Shylock. A conditional agreement was made between both of them that Shylock was to extract a pound of Antonio’s flesh which is closest to his heart if he is unsuccessful in returning the loan amount on time.
Antonio accepts this condition as his ships were to arrive on Venice’s docks before the deadline. Unfortunately the ships do not arrive on time and upon the default of the loan Shylock enforces the penalty bond.The story revolves around this issue and the proceedings brought in front of the Duke of Venice. This book was intended to be a comedy which fed into the majoritarian prejudices;however with time more subversive readings of the book were taken into account and Shylock’s character came to be seen as the guy done wrong to rather than the villain.
The play takes place in commercial Venice where international trade is the heart and blood of the city. The city is seen as a strict follower of the law. However, the Duke of Venice was hesitant to enforce the penalty bond which was going against the heart and blood of the city.
It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
'Twill be recorded as precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.[1]
Also the depiction of the civil proceedings did not capture the reality as such penalty bonds were not contracted; they normally had attachment of assets. Such a penalty bond could be seen as an anomaly. Also a lack of formal legal representation was seen as there was no legal representation and there was no formal judge. The Duke of Venice played both the Executive and Judicial role.Antonio is taken to trial where even the Duke of Venice could not help Antonio from his arrangement by the codified law.
Shylock refused to take double the amount of the loan as equity for redemptionfromBassanio, Antonio’s friend, for breaching the contract. There could be 3 reasons for this:
(i)            Shylock seeking revenge against Antonio who had publicly humiliated him repeatedly;
(ii)          Shylock could have possibly been angry against Christians as his daughter, Jessica, had ran away not too long ago with a Christian, and;
(iii)         An element of commercial rivalry: Antonio was also a moneylender but he gave out loans without any interest and so Shylock saw this as an easy method of removing competition.
At this juncture of the play we see Portia, Bossanio’s wife, arrive at the court in the disguise of a male lawyer. She concedes that Shylock is entitled to a pound of flesh however he may exactly have one pound of flesh, no more or less, and that too without dropping a single drop of Antonio’s blood.Eventually Shylock realizes that it is impossible to do such a thing and so he tries to accept three times the money that was offered; however Portia refuses. She interprets the penalty bond as an attack on a Venetian citizen under the Alien Statute and in turn Shylock is shown as the perpetrator. In the end it was held that Shylock had attempted to murder a Venetian citizen and so he was forced to convert to Christianity and also give away half of his property to his daughter Jessica who had eloped with a Christian. In the story it is seen that the judgment went in favor of a small technicality however such is not seen in real life. This helps us understand the idea of how a lawyer is depicted in literature.
An important theme of the play is the theme of hatred and discrimination. The society is predominantly a Christian society with a minority of Jews. The Jews are subjected to incidents of hatred regularly. An example would be Antonio spitting on Shylock. Antonio had made it a habit of doing incidents such as public defamation that even he was surprised when he saw that Shylock had so much hatred towards him and was persistent on him honoring the bond.While enforcing the penalty bond Shylock was the un-ideal victim as he was a money lending Jew while Antonio was seen as the un-ideal perpetrator as he was a kind-hearted Christian who served for the society. Later on after Shylock was blamed for the attempt to murder Antonio, he was the ideal perpetrator while Antonio was the ideal victim. This story has been seen to feed into the personal biases of the viewers, during the time this was written, as the larger community looked at a small community, such as the Jews, and demonized them.
This book also represents the different ideas of Justice. A distinction between the retributive motive of the Jews and the mercy of the Christians can be seen. Judaism is inherently associated with retribution. This book shows a clear portrayal of a Jewish character who wanted the enforcement of the penalty bond which would have led to the death of Antonio. The play is simply a Jew applying the lessons that he was taught by the Christians. His entire plan to make such an agreement came out of the hatred and insults that he had borne throughout the years from the Christians. Upon questioning the use of the pound of flesh and what use it will be Shylock responds with
The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction[2]
The Christian attitude of mercy can also be seen as the ending the conflict by starving it of the injustices it needs to continue. Shylock was let off afterhe converted to Christianity and paid damages. The Christian approach is to use law as the tool of mercy, not revenge. However when we see Antonio criticizing Shylock for practicing usury we see that Jews were actually barred from other professions. Hence, Shylock was actually pushed into practicing usury to earn a living while Antonio only lent money as one of his acts of kindness while he also had another profession. In doing so the penalty bond makes more sense, from Shylock’s perspective, as the element of commercial rivalry can be seen. Shylock’s livelihood depends upon the loans he gives and Antonio’s loans without any interests has proved to be a challenge to Shylock.
When we see the link between Shakespearean plays and the law we see a deep relation between the two. We see the prejudices of living under a dominant moral code where there are injustices rooted deep within the exercise of law. The injustices of law is seen as Shylock was deprived of his justice while following the law and was instead punished. We also see that desire is a human weakness which is ubiquitous: it is everywhere, inside everyone. Shylock had the desire to exact his revenge while Portia had the desire to save Antonio and they were willing to do anything for it. Shakespearean plays allow the readers to tie up the humanist and narrative strands of the law and literature theory which has revealed a disparity among the different groups in society and the way the law is applied. Readers become aware of the structural inequalities in the legal system and are left with the feeling of something still missing in the Justice process.

[1]WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, Act 4, Scene 1 (Jay L.Halioed, 1994).
[2]Supra 1 at Act 3, Scene 1.

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