William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” displays an Elizabethan history soaked in fear, fear of litigious and societal degradation, fear of the inadequacies of law, and fear of religious intolerance. The trial of Shylock raises fascinating questions on the need for historical context, the place of mercy in law, and, perhaps most interestingly, the worth of the individual in the face of that law. Both Shylock and Portia seem to understand that this trial is not so much about the individuals, but about setting a precedent so that others cannot take advantage of an apparent loophole. Shylock says that he will “stand here for law” (4:1:142); unfortunately, he does just that and is martyred, losing everything.
Starting with Henry the Eighth’s creation of a new religion made specifically to allow his divorce from Catherine, to the persecution of Protestants by Mary, followed by the embrace of Protestants by
It comes as little surprise that Portia’s famous trial speech deals largely with mercy rather than leniency:
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings…
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation (4:1:197-200).
Shakespeare, through Portia, warns that justice rarely leaves any party fully satisfied. Mercy, however, could save both Antonio from the wrath of Shylock, and Shylock from the wrath of God. Portia appeals to the court of Chancery, which, according to Wikipedia, allowed the Lord Chancellor or the Duke in “The Merchant”, to rule on a case based on the equity of a particular law rather than its literal interpretation. The court of Chancery provided two much needed solutions to English legal problems. Firstly, it appealed to religion, thereby tying law and morality closer together. Secondly, it allowed a level of interpretation to a law system still in its infancy. Portia’s speech closely echoes a work written in 1596, the same year as “The Merchant”, by Edmund Spenser who was a Clerk of Chancery. Spenser writes, “That powre he also doth to Princes lend…To weeten Mercie, be of Iustice part…And meriteth to have as high a place” (Knight, 187).
W. Nicholas Knight, writes that “equity and mercy as attributes of Chancery are very much in the legal wind of London in 1596” (188) in his book Shakespeare’s Hidden Life: Shakespeare at the Law,. Knight believes that Shakespeare illustrated the need for Chancery by creating a severe punishment Shylock’s use of the letter of the law; “the very terms of the bond were instructive in the debate between law and justice” (189).
However, Portia’s insistence on punishing Shylock further than the law requires clouds such an interpretation. After such an impassioned speech on the quality of mercy, why does she feel the need to leave Shylock with nothing? The answer lies in precedence. Portia herself remarks that the trial will “be recorded for a precedent, / And many an error, by the same example, / Will rush into the state. It cannot be” (4:1:220-221). If Shylock is not willing to be Christian, and accept mercy for Antonio, then he shall be prosecuted to the strictest letter of the law and beyond, because no other interpretation is adequate. He is an example so no others will dare to repeat his gruesome brand of usury.
There are other examples that could have informed both the author and his audience to the necessity of such strict jurisprudence. One such example is the execution of Dr. Roderigo Lopez, a Jew who was appointed physician to Queen Elizabeth, on
Christopher Marlowe also makes a connection to the trial of Dr. Lopez in “Dr. Faustus”. Marlowe compares the title character to Lopez, whom he calls Lopus, in the play; “Alas, alas, Doctor Fustian quoth a, mas Doctor Lopus was neuer such a Doctor, has giuen me a purgation” (LION). The trial of Dr. Lopez seemed to capture the attention of the English people, and, as a result, is represented in many other literary works of this period. It seems doubly shocking because the attempted murder was on the Queen, but also because it fuelled a hatred of the Jewish community that had been simmering for some time in
Although the trial of Dr. Lopez is a clear connection to Shylock’s own trial, a less obvious connection can be drawn to the Elizabethan idea of the humors, as well as the ancient Greek idea of the transmigration of souls. Gratiano tells Shylock that he possesses all the less than admirable qualities of a wolf; “Thy currish spirit / Governed a wolf… / And wilst thou lay’st in thy unhallowed dam / infused itself in thee” (4:1:134-137). Although the movement of spirits from one body to another was not recognized in Christianity, it was tolerated by non-orthodox Jews and is found in the Kabala. Gratiano mocks Shylock’s religion once again, but also toys with the Elizabethan idea of natural order.
According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, the Jewish association with the transmigration of souls stems from the belief that all souls are themselves pure, and it is only objects in the material world that cause these souls to become tainted. Much like present-day Buddhism, Jews believe that the impious atone for sin by another incarnation on Earth; “if the pious suffer, it is believed to be for sins committed in a previous existence” (
Shylock’s bizarre reference to slavery also has an interesting legal connection. He uses slavery as a defense for the ownership of the pound of Antonio’s flesh. Shylock emotes valiantly, “You will answer / ‘the slaves are ours.’ So do I answer you / The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought” (4:1:98-100).
William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” displays an Elizabethan history soaked in fear, fear of litigious and societal degradation, fear of the inadequacies of law, and fear of religious intolerance. Dramatic political instability fueled this fear; it raised awareness of the necessity for concrete ties between morality and the law. Shakespeare’s play ties Christian religious morality to litigiousness while also connecting that same morality to the persecution of differing religious views. By connecting these juxtaposed ideals, Shakespeare crafts a political play that is just as relevant today as it was four hundred years ago.