I'll comment on some of his observations as this post unfolds.
Tarry a little. There is something else.
So begins Shylock's reversal of fortune. Before Portia speaks these words, everything has been going his way. Or so it seemed. In fact, she's been messing with him big time, like a cat with a doomed mouse. "You must cut this flesh from off his breast," she tells Shylock. "The law allows it, and the court awards it."
He can hardly contain his joy. "Most learned judge!" he exclaims. And then, to Antonio, "Come, prepare."
But not so fast:
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood.
The words expressly are 'a pound of flesh.'
Take then thy bond. Take thou thy pound of flesh.
But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods
Are by the laws of Venice confiscate
Unto the state of Venice.
Wikipedia article about it, which my friend BL alerted me to. Wikipedia is great for these little things--on big issues, not so much. (Don't ever look up, say, "Enlightenment Philosophy." We still need libraries for Big Ideas). The article offers other examples of the quibble motif--stories in which someone escapes a potentially lethal legal predicament through an excessively literal reading of the original agreement. So Portia quibbles with the precise terms of the bond, and Shylock is trapped by his own literalism. The Jew then agrees to take three times the original amount, an offer Bassanio had made earlier. Shylock refused it then, but in light of the quibble, changes his mind. Portia says uh-uh. You wanted the bond, now you shall have it. You can almost hear her feline purr:
Soft, the Jew shall have all justice. Soft, no haste.
He shall have nothing but the penalty.
Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. If thou tak'st more
Or less than just a pound, be it but so much
As makes light or heavy in the substance,
Or the division of the twentieth part
Of one poor scruple--nay, if the scale do turn
But in the estimation of a hair,
Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate.
Notice how the stakes are higher now. First, he's going to lose all his "lands and goods." Now, he's going to die, too. She's not the secular authority in Venice, so it's hard to see how she has the right to levy a capital punishment. But she's clearly enjoying the power, and it's gone to her head. Shylock then asks for just the principal, the original amount of the loan, but again she refuses. All he's entitled to is his pound of flesh, to be taken at his peril. Beaten, Shylock then turns to go, giving up the case and his money altogether. But our girl isn't done yet:
The law hath yet another hold on you.
It is enacted in the laws of Venice,
If it be proved against an alien
That by direct or indirect attempts
He seek the life of any citizen,
The party 'gainst which he doth contrive
Shall seize one half his goods; the other half
Comes to the privy coffer of the state,
And the offender's life lies in the mercy
Of the Duke only, 'gainst all other voice--
In which predicament I say thou stand'st,
For it appears by manifest proceeding
That indirectly, and directly, too,
Thou hast contrived against the very life
Of the defendant, and thou has incurred
The danger formerly by me rehearsed.
Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke.
In short, he wished for Antonio's death, but didn't contrive to get it. "Contriving" would have meant he somehow made all Antonio's investments fail in order to ensure his compliance with the terms of the bond. He obviously didn't--couldn't--do that. So Portia, it seems to me, oversteps again.
But, as BL points out in his post, intention is a pretty slippery thing to nail down. And this makes perfect sense. Personally, I'm often alienated from my own intentions. I think I act for one reason, and much later realize that my motive was something quite different.
"It appears by manifest proceeding," she says. It looks for all the world as if you wanted to kill him. This is interpretation; Portia's very good at that. And I have to admire her as a fellow reader. I'm good at that, too. Sometimes too good, according to my husband. In fact, in our last squabble, he pretty much threw up his hands and told me I should have gone to law school.
Ah, the road not taken.
Again, the issue of intention is central to our understanding of this play. Because we all want to know what William Shakespeare, the Immortal Bard and greatest dramatist in English, intended in writing The Merchant. Did he intend to write an anti-Semitic play? Or did are we supposed to read it ironically?
Well, by now you know what I think about that.
"This Gate Was Made Only For You"
"Before the Law," a parable I've referred to before in conjunction with the juridical implications of this story. Full disclosure: I'm a real Kafka freak. I've read most of his stuff in German and English (the German is pretty easy), and visited his house in Prague. I've linked to the parable, which is really short, because I think it explains something about what happens to Shylock here. Portia says "if it be proved 'gainst any alien" that he has sought "the life of any citizen," his life and goods are forfeit. Shylock's predicament is the result of an inequity that inhabits the law itself. He's an alien, because he's a Jew. No matter how established he may be in Venice, how many generations his people have lived there, he can never be a citizen because he's a Jew. And there are, obviously, separate laws for Jews.
What Shylock has been after from the beginning is this: he wants the law to be universally applicable. Because the Christians trade in human flesh--slaves--he sees no problem with his pound of flesh demand. Because slaves are human, as Jews are. They are no different from the Christian aristocracy. What applies in one case should apply in all. There should only be one gate, one justice.
Failing this, he wants to reveal the hypocrisy of his enemies. "If a Jew wrong a Christian," he asks in Act 3, "what is his humility?" Where is the mercy they are always talking about? Where is their vaunted compassion?
It lies dormant in the land of rhetoric. In other words, it's a pose.
When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.
Judaism is not a missionary religion. You won't have Jews coming to your door trying to convert you. Jews realized from the beginning that they would have to coexist with people of other customs and beliefs, and so were careful to establish laws for dealing with these others. Christians, on the other hand, have a troubled history on this whole coexistence thing. Christianity is more like the Borg, in the old Star Trek: The Next Generation. All must be assimilated. Resistance is futile.
Exaggeration, but with some truth.
One of the creepiest parts of the play is when the Duke puts on his holier-than-thou hat and addresses the defeated Jew with these sanctimonious and thoroughly hypocritical words:
That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit,
I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.
For half thy wealth, it is Antonio's.
The other half comes to the general state,
Which humbleness may drive unto a fine.
The difference of our spirit, indeed. This is ironic on so many levels, it's hard to know where to start. So I think I'll save that discussion for next time.
Next: The care and feeding of scapegoats