(This post contains a detailed video on the topic.)
In my previous post on The Merchant of Venice, I argue that among Shakespeare’s many plays, Merchant is perhaps one of his most discomfiting for modern audiences.
For starters, despite its designation as a ‘comedy’, there’s actually not much about the play that inspires the sort of belly-up laughter we get from Falstaff in the Henry plays, or the chuckles we grant Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
And given Merchant‘s clear ‘antisemitic’ undertones, this discomfort is especially felt in a post-Holocaust world. Indeed, part of what makes this play disturbing is the seeming normalisation – and at points, justification – of racial prejudice, and most problematically, it’s all done in the name of “the law”.
What is ‘justice’?
The question of what constitutes justice is especially complex in Merchant, if only because Shakespeare forces us to double back and examine the roots of justice, and to question if justice, like morality, can ever be objectively defined.
According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the noun ‘justice’ comes in several meanings, including:
- Fairness in the way people are dealt with
- The condition of being morally correct or fair
- The system of laws by which people are judged and punished
There’s something paradoxical about the definitions here.
History shows us that what determines ‘moral fairness’ often depends on the dominant religious, social and political norms of a given era or society, but do the ‘systems of laws’ – which are ever evolving – always square with the codes of ‘moral fairness’?
Besides, if something’s legal, does it necessarily also make it just?
We know what happened with slavery – it was perfectly legal in America before 1865, but nowadays no one would consider penal labour to be anything less than a moral evil.
Or to use another example closer in time, homosexuality wasn’t legal in the United Kingdom until the Sexual Offences Act was passed in 1967 (Oscar Wilde was famously jailed in 1895 for “gross decency” – read: homosexual acts), and it remains illegal in more conservative societies even today. So goes miscegenation, which was illegal under the 1950 Immorality Act of South Africa as part of apartheid policies, until the Act was repealed in the 1980s.
Nowadays, virtually no one would agree that slavery, anti-miscegenation or persecuting homosexuals qualify as “fairness in the way people are dealt with”, but they were all legal at different points in history.
So one of the key problems that arise in Merchant, then, is this chasm between ‘what’s just’ versus ‘what’s legal’, and the moral issues that could result from the misalignment of ‘justice’ and ‘legality’.
The historical context of Merchant: ‘the Jewish problem’ in pre-Enlightenment England
In the play, law and justice are presented as two sides of the same coin, and is the basis on which opposite sides (the Christians vs the Jew) lodge their attack against each other.
In a society where Jewish stereotyping was run-of-the-mill, we see the Christians win out in what is essentially a ‘rigged’ race, which is staged as a combat of lexical wit and legal manipulation, rather than a trial of fair judgment and equal justice.
The Elizabethan audience, however, would have had little qualms about seeing the ‘unfair’ suffering of a Jew. This goes back to the 1290 Edict of Expulsion, which was promulgated by Edward I to resettle the entire Jewish population in England.
Thereafter, Jewish presence in English society was hidden and scant, and it wasn’t until Oliver Cromwell’s efforts to allow open Jewish faith practice in the 1650s that Jews started to slowly reassimilate into English society.
Having died in 1616, then, it’s likely that Shakespeare had never met a real Jew in his life. This would apply to the playgoers of Shakespeare’s time as well, so Jews back then weren’t so much thought of as actual people with flesh, blood (or indeed, to use Shylock’s famous words, “hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions”), but as a vague, vilified stereotype in the cultural imagination.
From what most sources can tell, Shakespeare himself was almost certainly not a ‘racist’ or an ‘anti-Semite’, so why did he choose to cast a Jew as a figure of “extreme cruelty” (as indicated on the cover of the 1623 First Folio) to explore the theme of justice?
Part of this was likely inspired by political events: in 1594, Elizabeth I’s physician, an ethnically Jewish converso named Roderigo Lopez, was executed for having allegedly conspired to poison the Queen.
At Lopez’s public execution, the Jew cried that he had “loved the Queen as much as he did Jesus Christ”, which invited no sympathy, only jeers of the cruellest sort.
As Lopez died at the scaffold, Shakespeare would most probably have been in the crowd, looking on at this harrowing sight. Given the flimsiness of the ‘evidence’ involved in Lopez’s case, whether the law was ‘right’ or ‘just’ seemed irrelevant to the Jew’s sentencing, and it’s possible that Lopez was given such a gruesome sentence largely because he was Jewish, and as such, assumed to be evil.
As a humanist playwright whose sensitivities would have been sharply attuned to the problems and limitations of the law, Shakespeare probably had his own suspicions as he set to work on another production for the Globe stage, the result of which was The Merchant of Venice, written between 1596 – 1599 but first performed in 1605.
3 key ideas of justice in The Merchant of Venice
In this post, I outline 3 key ideas of justice as presented in Merchant, which I’ll analyse in relation to relevant moments from the play:
- Justice is not always granted by the law
- Justice is a socio-economic necessity
- Justice favours victors, not victims
The key moments I’ll reference include:
- Act 2 Scene 8: Salanio mocks Shylock’s frustration over the loss of his daughter and money
- Act 3 Scene 2: Bassanio picks the ‘casket’ that will win him Portia’s hand in marriage
- Act 3 Scene 3: Shylock insists that he will claim his ‘pound of flesh’ bond from Antonio
- Act 4 Scene 1: ‘The trial scene’, in which Portia-as-Balthazar wins the case against Shylock
… and watch my video lecture here:
Key idea 1: Justice is not always granted by the law
One of the most curious things about the play is Shylock’s unwavering faith in ‘the law’.
Despite Shylock’s awareness of the deep-rooted anti-Semitism in Venice, he seems to have absolute trust in the Venetian law’s impartiality.
And yet, we know that the law is far from a set of objective rules that one can rely on for definitive judgment or justice, but rather, is of a nature that requires subjective interpretation, skilful litigation, and heavy contextualisation.
Given the inherent bias that Venetian Christians hold against Jews, then, one would imagine that most Jews at the time would be savvy enough not to rely on Christian justices (and they would most certainly have been Christians) for a truly fair sentence, even though ‘fairness’ is strictly speaking, the spirit of the law.
In Act 2 Scene 8, we hear about Shylock’s insistence on legal justice, when Salanio recounts the usurer’s frustration over his loss of both daughter and ducats through an unflattering report –
I never heard a passion so confused,
So strange, outrageous, and so variable,
As the dog Jew did utter in the streets:
‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!
Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!
Justice! The law! My ducats, and my daughter!
A sealed bag, two sealed bags of ducats,
Of double ducats, stolen from me by my daughter!
And jewels, two stones, two rich and precious stones,
Stolen by my daughter! Justice! Find the girl;
She hath the stones upon her, and the ducats.’
While it must be caveated that these are reported words provided by an anti-Semitic Christian (and as such, the veracity of which is doubtful), it’s worth noting that Shylock apparently equates “justice” with “the law”, just as he equates “my daughter” with “my ducats”.
And while Salanio’s characterisation of Shylock is one of mockery, his comment of Shylock’s passion as one that’s “so strange” is telling.
After all, there’s nothing “strange” about a father’s rage over his daughter’s thievery and abandonment, so why is Shylock’s response deemed unnatural?
To the Christian Salanio, perhaps what’s “strange” isn’t Shylock’s reaction to Jessica’s escape, but instead, his blind – almost laughable – trust in the Venetian courts of law. The fact that Shylock would expect Christian justice for a “dog Jew” is maybe a bit too naïve, and indeed, foreboding of the lack of justice (or at least vindication) that Shylock will be met later at court in Act 4 Scene 1.
On the other hand, Bassanio is under no illusions about the prejudices inherent in Venetian law, notwithstanding his favourable position as a Christian.
We see this in Act 3 Scene 2 (the ‘casket’ scene), when Bassanio delivers his speech on how “outward shows” shouldn’t be trusted –
So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? […]
This is a damning, but sobering, diagnosis of the justice system, and exposes the unreliability of the law.
The point Bassanio makes is one that continues to hold true in the 21st century: the law isn’t above deceit, nor is it always capable of seeing through the “show of evil” to deliver true justice for all.
Even the most “tainted and corrupt… plea” can escape legal punishment, as long as it’s skilfully concealed and “seasoned with a gracious voice”.
It’s interesting, then, that Portia (as Balthasar) should later use rhetorical skill to lawyer Shylock out of his pursuit of justice. In her famed ‘mercy’ speech, she echoes the word Bassaonio uses – “season” – when she says that “earthly power doth then show likest God’s/When mercy seasons justice”.
This idea that justice is ‘seasonable’ – in the sense of alterable, is surely problematic for someone like Shylock, who fails to recognise that justice isn’t composed of decrees carved in stone, but is instead pliable to the bending and twisting of whoever administers it.
Bassanio’s use of performative diction – “shows”, “the show”, “ornament”, “voice” etc. – suggests a cheeky parallel between the court and the stage, which undercuts the traditional seriousness one would associate with the law, and invites one to consider if the law deserves the level of trust that most would invest in it, especially when it appears that rhetoric sometimes overrides truth in the determination of ‘justice’.
Considering the law’s intimidating, and at times, intervening, presence in Renaissance theatre (and in Shakespeare’s professional career), it wouldn’t seem unlikely for the Bard to make a subtle dig at the legal institutions of his time.
Key idea 2: Justice is a socio-economic necessity
Why is justice necessary?
In a modern liberal democracy, justice is necessary because people subscribe to values like human rights, liberty, equality etc. (which are all Enlightenment ideas that didn’t gain popular currency until the 17th century).
But in the Renaissance, justice was a concept inseparable from God, and specifically, a result of divine judgment. What was deemed ‘just’ would have been based on Christian doctrine, and yet, between the Hebrew Old Testament and the Christian New Testament, views on what constitutes ‘justice’ diverge radically.
Is justice the ‘eye for an eye’ sort as prescribed in the Deuteronomy and reflected in the Book of Exodus?
Or is it of the ‘turn the other cheek’ variety that Jesus exhorts in his Sermon on the Mount?
For Shylock, whose worldview aligns with the Old Testament, he sees it his Old Testament God-given right to demand retributive justice, especially when his ‘pound of flesh’ bond was agreed to by the opposite party, Antonio, in the first place.
Technically, there’s nothing wrong with his insistence on Antonio’s fulfilment of the bond, but it’s clear that he wants Antonio’s flesh out of spite, bitterness, and a desire to avenge the long-standing abuse he’s suffered at the hands of the Christian merchant.
In Shylock’s mind, the prospect of turning the Christian law against a Christian, and to witness this as a Jew relegated to the social side lines, is more than just schadenfreude – it is God’s way of finally vindicating him, and is his one shot at justice on his own terms.
Seen from the lens of Venetian racial power dynamics, Shylock’s pursuit of justice is his way of asserting power as a relatively powerless figure, and as such, a matter of emotional and existential necessity. As he cries –
I’ll have my bond; speak not against my bond:
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou call’dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs:
The duke shall grant me justice. […]
The triple epistrophe of “my bond” suggests Shylock’s borderline obsession with exacting the ‘justice’ he believes is due him, and highlights just how important he sees this as an opportunity to one-up Antonio in return for being called “a dog”.
Shylock even implies that he’s the more reasonable of the two (despite the cruelty of his bond), because unlike the Christian, who insulted him “before thou hadst a cause”, his “cause” is apparent and mutually agreed to: to have his loan repaid on time, or to fulfil the bond of his desire, and it’s now come to the latter because Antonio couldn’t live up to his own promise.
What’s striking, though, is the colon that follows Shylock’s zoomorphic reference of “since I am a dog, beware my fangs:/The duke shall grant me justice”. This creates a non sequitur; while a colon normally functions to introduce supplementary and related information, the latter line here doesn’t logically follow from the former.
What link is there between ‘being a dog’ and having justice granted?
Is Shylock perhaps suggesting that because he has suffered Christian persecution and bigotry for so long, it is high time that the state compensates him by granting him the justice he wants?
Notwithstanding the ambiguity of this reading, it shows Shakespeare’s humanistic sensitivity as a playwright, in that he can capture even the slightest psychological inflections of his characters through the interplay of punctuation and style.
Antonio’s understanding of justice, on the other hand, is neither ‘Old Testament’ retributive nor, curiously enough, charitable in the New Testament sense (which would be closer to Portia’s appeal for ‘mercy’). Instead, Antonio sees justice as a matter of political necessity and commercial leverage, which he expresses after failing to persuade Shylock –
I am sure the duke
Will never grant this forefeiture to hold.
The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
Since that the trade and profit of the city
Consisteth of all nations. […]
This is spoken like a true merchant, and of course, we know that Antonio, rather than Shylock, is the titular ‘Merchant of Venice’.
The string of mercenary diction – “commodity”, “trade” and “profit” – highlights that Antonio’s identity is a merchant first, and a Christian second.
He believes that justice and the law make foreigners want to do business in Venice, which relies on international “trade and profit” to thrive. Antonio’s sacrifice, then, is for an economic imperative, and as such, of a secular, not Christian, nature.
The largesse he shows towards the state is noble, but not exactly virtuous, and his willingness to give his life up for the reputation of the state is contrasted against Shylock’s narrow-minded obsession with pursuing justice for his own “cause”.
It is important to remember, however, that Shakespeare doesn’t intend for us to view this contrast through moral filters, because Antonio’s belief in justice is merely pragmatic, not morally superior.
Ultimately, the merchant believes in the importance of justice not because he prizes fairness, goodwill or fellow feeling, but because he views it as what ensures the continuation of Venetian commerce, which is the only lineage he claims kin with.
Key idea 3: Justice favours victors, not victims
Finally, we come to what is probably one of the two most famous speeches in Merchant (the other being Shylock’s ‘Hath not a Jew eyes’ monologue): Portia’s eloquent appeal on “the quality of mercy”.
It’s a rhetorical tour de force with a power perhaps not even the most ardent Shylock sympathisers can deny, and yet, it reveals the central problematics that lie at the heart of Venetian ‘justice’ –
The quality of mercy is not strained,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Portia is speaking to a Jew in Christian terms, which exposes a fundamental mismatch between the two parties.
She argues that merciful, not punitive, justice, is “an attribute to God himself”, but Portia’s God isn’t Shylock’s God, who is the wrathful Yahweh of Abraham, Lot, Sodom and Gomorrah, not the forgiving God of Jesus Christ.
The “salvation” that Portia speaks of is alien to Shylock, because Judaic soteriology points to true salvation as the vindication of the Jewish people.
And indeed, Shylock’s demand for justice in the form of a Christian’s flesh isn’t simply a matter of legalistic adherence, but also ethnic vengeance.
This is why, despite Portia having “spoke thus much”, all her words seem to fall on deaf ears. When Shylock cries “my deeds upon my head! I crave the law”, we see that Portia’s eloquence is no more than gibberish talk to the Jew.
As such, despite the rhetorical brilliance Portia demonstrates in this moment, her extensive use of Christian imagery reveals that she is an ineffective communicator, because she doesn’t speak in a language that is familiar to her target of persuasion.
It is surely ironic, then, that after Portia’s appeal to charity, she should deliver such a harsh, vindictive, pronouncement against Shylock.
By dint of lexical attention, she is able to exploit the semantics of the law and turn the tables on her Jewish adversary –
Tarry a little; there is something else.
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.
Now, it’s hard to believe that any law would be so ludicrous as to allow for the cutting of flesh without the expectation that blood should be shed.
But of course, Shakespeare’s point isn’t to have his audience question the semantic loopholes of the Venetian law; it’s likelier that he wanted to give his Christian viewers a triumphant reprieve, and to have them leave the theatre having had the politically correct ‘last laugh’, as it were.
Not content with simply pandering to the crowds, however, Shakespeare draws our attention to the unequal justice that undergirds the system of law in a heavily biased society, which only ever leaves the marginalised ‘others’ with a thin veil of protection.
And when a society operates only by the law of the majority identity or belief (i.e. Venetian Christians), it’s perhaps little wonder that those who are persecuted (i.e. Jews) would be doubly adamant in their efforts to pursue their own course of justice, or be doubly vehement that their wishes be granted when the opportunity arises.
Still, if history has taught us anything, the marginalised don’t always win.
As if it wasn’t clear enough that Shylock is the ‘other’, the ‘alien’, the ‘Jew’ in the play, the 1623 First Folio reinforces our sense of his otherness by abruptly changing Shylock’s name to the racial tag – “Jew” – upon his entering the court scene.
For modern sensitivities, though, the “Jew’s” rapid defeat will probably inspire more pathos than laughter –
Is that the law?
Thyself shalt see the act:
For, as thou urgest justice, be assured
Thou shalt have justice, more than thou desirest.
The parallelism of Portia’s “thou urgest justice…/Thou shalt have justice” smacks of the cadence in Deuteronomy 19:21, which states, in similar parallel echoes –
Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.
So while Portia preaches what Matthew advises in the New Testament – “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”, her actions seem more Old Testament-esque.
What this suggests isn’t so much religious hypocrisy as the sobering reality that in any society, the dominant party always has the wherewithal and leeway to interpret and reinterpret whatever code or law in its favour.
So even if there was a ‘law’ to which all citizens in a given society are subject, it can never be fairly or justly administered to those who have the short end of the socio-political stick.
Realising that he’s been checkmated, Shylock relents and agrees to “take this offer… And let the Christian go”, but this time, Portia won’t let him go so easily, as she proceeds to taunt him with her ‘insistence’ on him having “all justice” –
The Jew shall have all justice; soft! No haste:
He shall have nothing but the penalty.
Ironically, the “penalty” here, while ostensibly referring to Antonio’s ‘pound of flesh’, has become Shylock’s penalty at the hands of the Venetian state – for threatening the life of a Christian as “an alien”.
Finally, Portia declares her victory when she asks –
Art thou contented, Jew? What dost thou say?
I am content.
The Shylock at this point cuts a very different figure from his earlier self.
Having been indignant, bitter and blustering for most of the play, he is now reduced to a submissive husk, whose sole function is to echo the words of his Christian superiors, and to swallow consent where no consent is felt and no ‘justice’ is given.
So the only justice that remains at the end of the play rests solely with the Christians, as the way it should be in a cultural cosmos where Jews and ‘aliens’ are viewed not as individuals with rights, but simply agents that exist and are barely tolerated in society, let alone protected by law.
Through Shylock’s portrayal, we see Shakespeare’s greatness not only as a master of dramatic craft, but also a pioneer in humanistic thinking: instead of presenting ‘the Jew’ as an abhorrent stereotype (which would have been the prevailing view of his time), he opens up the possibility for his audiences to consider that the Jew’s “extreme cruelty” is as much a product of structural oppression as it is a human trait, and that the jeering, sneering Christians both at Roderigo Lopez’s execution and in the audience of the Globe are all complicit in that oppression.
So, is Shakespeare serving up a slice of the moral pie? Not quite, but a refusal to moralise or ‘virtue signal’ doesn’t mean the need to hold back from reflecting human cruelty, or to poke holes at the gossamer of social ‘justice’.