Saturday, March 20, 2010

I Crave the Law

Shylock "craves the law." I've always stopped short at that phrase, because it bothers me. The law isn't supposed to be craved. It's supposed to be meted out with impersonal objectivity. Cravings are for things like ice cream (see comments on previous post), sex, a glass of wine you shouldn't have. Cravings are about appetite, and the law is supposed to be about reason. In fact, the law pretty much exists to rein in our appetites, doesn't it? So it's an interesting choice of words.

Sometimes I crave the law. Yes, I do.  Except when I'm the guilty party, of course. Then I'm all for mercy. Mercy for me, the law for everyone else!

What Shylock craves is the law at its most literal. As I discussed in an earlier post, he's a fundamentalist. Judeo-Christian history is full of fundamentalists. Remember the Pharisees?  Old-time fundamentalists, insisting on the letter, not the spirit, of the law. They were often set up as straw men in the New Testament--puritanical fanatics who had no compassion for sinners. Christ's New Covenant of mercy and love is specifically established in opposition to Pharisaical rigidity. If Shylock is a type of Pharisee, an intransigent and merciless literalist, then the Venetian Christians become, almost by default, types or representatives of Christ. One by one they urge mercy, but are met with stony refusal. 

The Duke--as so often in Will's plays--is a well-meaning but impotent secular authority figure. He insists that the Jew not only be merciful, but generous. In fact, he's sure that Shylock's insistence on his "bond" is only a joke:

Shylock, the world thinks--and I think so too--
That thou but lead'st this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then 'tis thought
Thou'lt show thy mercy and remorse more strange
Than is thy strange apparent cruelty,
And where thou now exacts the penalty--
Which is a pound of this poor merchant's flesh--
Thou wilt not only loose the forfeiture,
But, touched with human gentleness and love,
Forgive a moiety of the principal,
Glancing an eye of pity on his losses....

"I'm sure," he says, "that you're just pulling our leg here. You just want to surprise us with your generosity at the last minute! Not only will you release Antonio from the bond, but you'll forgive half the original debt! Because you're so cool!"

What planet is this guy from? It's hard to believe that anyone could actually be the ruler of a commercial Babylon like Venice and be this naive. Although I suppose it could be a tactic, an attempt to shame or bully Shylock into relenting.  In any case, it doesn't work. Because Shylock craves the law. He wants his pound of flesh.

He refuses to take twice the amount he loaned, then three times, proving that it's not about money at all.  Bassanio then entreats the court to

Wrest once the law to your authority.
To do a great right, do a little wrong,
And curb this cruel devil of his will.

This view of the law as malleable, as adaptable to different circumstances, stands in sharp contrast to Shylock's craving for the literal. In fact, these two views of the law still obtain today. Every time there's a Supreme Court seat up for grabs, one hears about "strict constructionists," who believe that the Constitution should be treated as immutable, and those who are willing to--more or less--wrest the document to their authority. My fellow blogger the Bad Lawyer would doubtless be able to offer more explication of this difference as it plays out in today's legal system. In the play, the opposition is structured as a religious and cultural one. The Christians want to find a loophole, but Shylock wants his weight of carrion flesh.

Next: The masquerade of justice. In other words, there's a girl under those robes!


  1. GM--

    Per usual you have done a superb job of laying out the issues.

    The law in England was "common law" that is the rules and customs established over time by decisions of courts in lawsuits and cases. As my friend 'rigt wing Chuck (aka, the Pope) says all law is commercial law.

    Of course Shakespeare is dealing with two interesting aspects of the law, commercial laws as he imagines that to be in Italy at the time of the Merchant of Venice; and, the Torah, implicitly Old Testament laws given to Moses in Exodus and Leviticus.

    Amazingly, the Orthodox Jewish laws are quite humane and wise--it is really quite a perversion of Jewish law to imagine that piouos Shylock would insist on a "pound of flesh" in redemption of his bond. But the dramatic device does set up the universal question of the letter of law versus the spirit of the law which of course is the point of "justice." Commercial law has actually been pretty progressive on insisting on "mitigation of damages" before one could insist on forfeiture of a bond.

    What we have in the Merchant of Venice actually resembles something closer to an Italian Mafia or better yet, a Japanese Yakuza "remedy' being collected rather than a commercial bond under either internatinal commercial law or orthodox Jewish customs.

    Great post per ususal, and I'm glad to see you back in the swing of curating your blog!


  2. Thanks for the explication, BL. I think that Will had a specific idea of Judaism in mind, one that derives from Christian sermons of the era rather than any true understanding of the religion. I remember this kind of "Pharisaical" sense of Judaism playing a part in my early Catholic education. In other words, the Pharisees were unforgiving literalists, while the Christians were humane and compassionate.

    Re: your friend's idea that all law is commercial law. Does he mean that it's commercial because it's based on an economic sense of justice or "right?" That it's about a "balancing of accounts?" I suspect he may have meant something more cynical...

  3. I re-read Leviticus last night, and while there is a great deal of wisdom particularly in commercial dealing and in ethics and morality like don't sleep with your sister, step mother, the animals,and so on. The penalties are pretty damn harsh--uh, death. You don't look to the Torah for support of homosexuality, that's for sure.

    My friend Chuck has a pretty strange worldview, I think he believes that almost all civil and criminal cases spring from commerical or economic motives. He also believes all courts operate institutionally from an economic motive. As with most things Chuck's opinions offer a unique perspective that I feel free to look at but disagree with, but I'm happy to have his unique perspective in my universe.

    But we should ask ourselves when we look at judicial decisions even those that you might not see as "commercial" and ask ourselves--is there an economic motive? Surprisingly, there are times where a decision that may not seem to have an economic motive when in fact there is a solid commercial purpose.

    BTW, I was reading the Ethics column in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Sunday, and a restaurant owner waas asking about prosecuting a server who was stealing from the company. The Restauranter was asking--should I or should I not seek this server's prosecution. The response of the ethicist was very interesting, here's the link:

  4. I've been meaning to get back here--it's been a crazy week, and it's only Tuesday. I find your friend's view interesting, and not easily dismissed--because I think, if you take most bad behaviors back to their inception, there's always an "appetitive" motive. In other words, not always money, but a craving for some kind of commodity-- even if that commodity is just an objectified idea of love. I.e, love as something that demands a return on investment.
    Haven't looked at the Times column yet, but I will...

  5. He craved the law because he had never been treated justly in his whole entire life. He believed that he would get justice, and that is what he truly craved. Sadly, the law was unjust.