Saturday, March 20, 2010
I Crave the Law
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!
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!