Thursday, April 8, 2010

Winner Takes All

Today, a special treat! I've been corresponding with my friend and fellow blogger, the Bad Lawyer, about some of the legal implications of the trial scene. We've agreed to post (more or less) simultaneously on the topic. He's written a fascinating and detailed assessment of the legal aspects of the play, keeping in mind, of course, that this is Renaissance theater and not contemporary litigation. I have, as is my wont, been reading the play from a literary/historical perspective, but I also wanted to explore some of the broader legal issues involved. Alas, I'm not really equipped to do that. Or at least not well.  So I prevailed upon the Bad Lawyer (hereafter, BL), to help me out. Check out his blog post--and his blog, which is fabulous. It's part legal/cultural commentary, part quasi-Augustinian confession. He's a brave, honest guy, and an insightful cultural reader. Despite his chosen sobriquet, he's no worse, morally speaking, than the rest of us--and a good deal better than many. The Venetians in the play could take lessons in (genuine) humility from him, it seems to me.

I'll comment on some of his observations as this post unfolds.

The Quibble

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.

This folkloric loophole is called a "quibble," I recently found out. There's a nice little 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:

Tarry, Jew. 
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.

Are there any scarier words than "wait, the law's not done with you yet?" It suggests limitless power, against which an individual can do nothing. Except, of course, beg for mercy. This is the passage that prompted me to write BL and ask for some legal insight. Because what Portia is really saying is that Shylock intended to kill Antonio from the word go. That he "contrived"--plotted--to murder him. I simply don't think that's true. I think Shylock reveres the law. He knows that the laws of Venice and of God prohibit murder. He wanted the law to kill Antonio for him. Most of all, he wanted the law on his side for once.

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"

That's not a quotation from the play. It's from Kafka's  "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.

Kafka's status as a Jew in Prague--a city notable for both its Jewish culture and its tradition of antisemitism--doubtless influenced his writing about the law. In the parable, the "man from the country"--an alien, in other words--waits to be admitted to the law. He waits for justice. He waits his entire life, but he's never admitted. At the end of his life, he wonders why no one else ever sought admission at the gate. The gatekeeper explains that "this gate was made only for you."  This is your particular justice. There is no universal justice. All men are not equal. The impartiality of the law is a lie.

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.

As BL points out in his post, Jewish law is much more equitable. In Leviticus 19: 34, God enjoins his chosen people to treat strangers as equals:

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


  1. I've been privy to many suggested parellels of Shakespeare and the Bible; of the Bible and Star Trek and even of Star Trek and nature of Human kind, but never so artfully and clever as this one. Well-Done.

  2. Thank you, Laura. Actually there are some Star Trek episodes that deal with Shakespeare, too--Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and (I think) Othello. I used to think ST was the key to all mythologies...