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Essay: The Ambiguity Law, Literature, and Religion in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice

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  • The Ambiguity Law, Literature, and Religion in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
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While legal approaches to texts look very closely at systems of order and rules by which we should conduct our behavior, literature teaches moral frameworks to justice by dealing with human life at its best and worst. The intersection of these two fields began to emerge in the late 16th century and, as such, allowed audiences to gain a more universal understanding of law as not only a set of rules and punishments, but also as a social force. This was the Elizabethan Golden Age and from it, like most of his other plays, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice emerged. In short, the play tells the story of a Jewish moneylender who loans a large sum to the Christian Antonio, with the condition of receiving a pound of Antonio’s flesh, should he default on his loan. This is, of course, only after Antonio convinces Shylock to not charge him interest and accepts Shylock’s subsequent terms. When Antonio defaults on his loan and Shylock comes to collect, he is charged with conspiracy to commit murder and is forced to, among other things, give up most of his fortune and his faith. While motifs of hate and discrimination towards Jews are indisputably deeply rooted throughout the play, the play is also characterized by Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech on great human equalizers that transcend religion. While some read the play as justice for an innocent Antonio being delivered by the formidable Portia, others read it as perpetuating discrimination in the name of the law. Moreover, the latter is usually only clarified when one begins to close read passages critically. It is only in doing so, that many of the play’s ambiguities are revealed and it becomes clear that there is no one clear reading of a text. Indeed, depending on the given context, The Merchant of Venice is exemplary of how any text can be said to argue anything in order to suit the beliefs of the interpreter. Within this text, multiple, not only different, but completely opposite readings exist particularly in regard to its legal and literary commentary on religion.

The Merchant of Venice is almost always immediately deemed an anti-Semitic text and not without good reason. In fact, the very opening of the play shows Shylock being spat upon by Antonio and consists considerably of Shylock speaking predominantly about wealth, vengeance, and his fierce pursuit of the two. By presenting spitting on a gluttonous, bitter Shylock as the first thing audiences see, this clearly discriminatory act by a Christian towards a Jew and this characterization of Jews function as an epigraph, thereby setting the tone for the rest of the play. So, as the play continues, audiences have already been conditioned to expect to play witness to other acts of anti-Semitism and already have an image in their mind set of Jews as moneylenders who, against all reason, persist, in this case, in claiming their pound of flesh. A contradictory reading, however, may find that since Shylock is the only Jew who is demonized in the text, he is not meant to be representative of all Jews. Nonetheless, in keeping the play’s epigraph in mind, from the very fact that Shylock is referred to at the onset of the play, and then throughout, as “the Jew,” he becomes symbolic in the audience’s mind as typical of all Jews: malicious, vindictive, and largely unhappy. The audience is then primed to hear Shylock repeatedly referred to as “the devil in the likeness of a Jew,” an “inhuman wretch,” “dog Jew,” “currish Jew,” and many more repulsive names. Moreover, Shylock’s character can be read as evil for good reason. Additionally, even without the additional negative names, Shylock’s repeated title as “the Jew” reinforces his deserving to be condemned and despised due to his otherness. While the other characters speak quite eloquently, Shylock’s blunt language is unwelcoming and vulgar: “urine,” “gaping pig,” and “bagpipe” are among his repeated phrases. When Shylock learns that Antonio’s ship sunk and therefore Antonio would inevitably default on the loan, Shylock exclaims “I thank God,” repeatedly, demonstrating joyous anticipation for Antonio’s demise. Then going to court to collect his due, Shylock will not even accept three times the money to spare Antonio’s life. Juxtaposing Shylock, the Christian Portia implores him to show mercy, arguing that legal reasoning must go beyond abstractions in order to reflect human values. In doing so, she equates mercifulness and justice with Godliness, essentially setting mercy at the highest degree of virtue in Christian Venice. She also goes on to explain how justice alone does not provide deliverance for anyone; while urging Shylock to free Antonio from their wretched deal, she explains how justice must be “seasoned with mercy.” Another Christian Salarino questions, “If he forfeit (Antonio), thou wilt not take his flesh: what’s that good for?” However, Shylock refuses to concede, simply stating how only vengeance against Antonio will suffice: “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.” All of these quotations paint a villainous portrait of Shylock, being a Jew, as unmerciful, erratic and deplorable, acting purely on irrational emotions and the hate he bears towards Antonio.

Another completely opposite reading of Shylock portrays him as a victim of harsh oppression. When Shylock responds to Salerio, “If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge,” he continues on to say, “[Antonio] hath disgraced me, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation.” While Shylock’s clear memory of every misdeed Antonio ever committed against him can be read as calculated and vindictive, the fact that he does not act the way he does without reason humanizes him. As mistreatment is addictive in real life, it is also in the text. Nearly every character, including his own daughter, partakes in demoralizing him. That is one of Shylock’s very points in his “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech when he states, “And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?” From this, it becomes difficult to determine whether Shylock is a villain or a victim, because victims are not infallible either. Yes, Shylock overreacts and lashes out, but at the same time he behaves badly under circumstances that Shakespeare makes all too clear. Concurrently, many moral characteristics are demonstrated in Shylock as a Jew. Among these is believing in the pursuit of justice, abiding by oaths taken, Shylock’s pious nature as evidenced by his ability to quote the Old Testament, his being well-educated, and, unfortunately, the way by which Jews likely viewed their oppressors at the time. Indeed, Shylock can easily be read as more sinned against than a sinner himself; his negative reactions are a product of his horrible mistreatment and discrimination easily making him a victim of circumstance. So, when he famously asks, “if you prick us [Jews], do we not bleed?”, he shows a type of humanity not witnessed in any of the other characters: despite being spat upon, kicked, and condemned for his otherness, he insists that people share a common humanity that transcends religious values. At this point, it is useful to look at On Trial’s discussion of the “law of either or.” As the text states, when discussions of us against them, in this case Christian superiority versus Jewish inferiority appear, the attitude of whoever does not strictly agree with us is against us has horrible repercussions: “At certain periods – in revolution, war, or civil war – this logic may be right, but it is very difficult in times of peace, when it is applied to literature.” While he begins by listing their commonality in physical characteristics, he goes on to discuss more sentient comparisons by concluding that Jews, being the same as Christians, should be able to seek revenge as Christians would. Regardless of whether he is or not, Shylock clearly sees himself as symbolic of the persecuted Jew and, in turn, wants to achieve revenge for the humiliation, degradation, and abuse Jews suffered by the Christians and their laws. Furthermore, Shylock is not just one thing. His negative characteristics may very well be the result not only of his own idea of who he is, but also who he has no choice but to be. At its core, Shylock’s story is one of a man who becomes the very obstinacy of temper he is criticized for by people who do not want him to be anything else. By never allowing how the Venetians – Christians who spit on Shylock one minute and ask him for money the next – perceive and label the Jew in him to be forgotten, they make Shylock, either by preference or consequence, into their negative Jewish stereotype. Therefore, Shylock’s demanding of a pound of flesh is just as much reflective of his character as it is his capitulation to an expected role. Indeed, no character in this play is only portrayed positively not is any character portrayed in only one way. Shylock stands as both a victim of the Venetian justice system and an upholder or its laws. Antonio is shown to be both a victim of Shylock’s cruelty and a superior member of the powerful Christian patriarchy. In this way, their Christian and Jewish statuses are juxtaposed with Christians being depicted as just and Jews being depicted as unjust no matter who is in breach and who is trying to uphold the law. In this way, the play can either be read as arguing for Christian superiority or as shedding light on persecution, with Jews being victimized regardless of circumstance.

Let us take a brief aside. Another scene that can be read as both anti-Semitic and arguing against Jewish stereotypes is when his daughter Jessica runs away with Shylock’s money and jewels. Shylock’s exclamation of “I would my daughter were dead at my foot and the jewels in her ear” typically leads audiences to see him as a greedy, irritable old man, who would rather see his only child dead than lose his wealth. However, Shylock’s reaction takes on a whole new meaning given what was stolen: the ring of his late wife. Earlier in the play, he demonstrates loyalty to his family by lamenting the loss of his wife and explaining how he would not give up nor sell his wife’s ring under any circumstances, clearly showing that he is not simply acquisitive but that he has a heart and values some things more than money. This same depiction of Shylock as placing his values above his fortune is shown when he will not give up his revenge in court for any amount of money. As with his not caring about receiving a large sum in the case of his seeking vengeance against Antonio, Shylock clearly breaks the stereotype of the greedy Jew by placing his values above his fortune. Conversely, the Christians in the play seem to be solely focused on their financial security. So, for Jessica to have stolen something with so much significance and to, then, have parted with it, is a horrible betrayal. There is also clear reason to believe that he laments the loss of his only child to his oppressors. While Shylock is typically portrayed as an oppressive father, confining his daughter to a “house [that] is hell,” there exist several interreligious readings of oppression. On the one hand, his conduct towards Jessica can be seen by the Christian patriarchy as justification enough to deem him appalling. However, at the same time, the Christian men in the play also oppress Christian women. A subtle example of this can be seen in Portia’s close abidance to Christian law out of a legal duty to honor her late father’s will, demonstrating the internalization of oppression within the play. Jeremy Bentham’s theory of the Panopticon depicts a circular prison structure, with each cell overlooked by a central guard tower. The prisoners are aware that they may be under surveillance at any moment, but because they are unable to see their observers and, thus, know when they are being watched, they alter and police their own behavior. This internalization of surveillance can, theoretically speaking, be seen in Portia’s honoring her father’s will, because it is her legal duty to do so, but also because she has internalized the surveillance of an omniscient Christian god in her mind. In the end, if Portia is only pious because she feels that she has no other choice or because she would be in an extremely precarious position if she did not abide by the will depends on how the text is read. Either way, this can easily be read as oppressing female autonomy and because there exists such a multifaceted web of oppression in the play’s Venetian society, simply criticizing the behavior of the Jewish individual in no way impedes being critical of the Christians in the play.

Even Portia’s famous plea for mercy can be read in multiple lights. As described above, Portia’s speech subscribes to the belief that royal power and divine power go hand in hand and that mercifulness is Godliness. However, Portia’s ideas of mercy here are relativist because they are based off the Christian “turn the other cheek” rather than Shylock’s, in following the Old Testament, Jewish absolutist view of justice as “an eye for an eye.” It is not surprising, then, why Shylock does not conform to Portia’s ideas of mercy. Indeed, the Christians in the play rule by virtue of their faith. Consequently, wealth does not bestow Jews power in this play. Instead, they are treated as inferior and isolated as a result of their faith. From the normative perspective studied in class, it is understandable that Shylock would not necessarily believe in a principle underscored by Christian jurisprudence. The Jewish Shylock has no reason to feel connected to the law, nor does he have reason to believe that it is for his benefit. Instead, he, as well as most other Jews within this society, are left to operate outside the framework of the law and perceive the Christians who created and enforce these laws as expressions of its violence towards them as Jews. This particular reading is also reflective of the lack of freedom Jews were afforded in choosing leadership. From the perspective of the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, Jews like Shylock would have an inherent tension with Christians as they enforce rules over Jews without Jews having had any say in their ruling. According to Derrida, “the first law must be demanded from someone who has the authority to establish laws,” but when Jews and Christians do not agree upon the authority of the law, one set of religious values is imposed upon another group and hatred and dominance are expressed. In general, an Elizabethan audience would likely accept violence from the Christians, as we do today from police, as they are supposed to be righteous and good, when, in fact, they simply own the violence of the law and take the authority to punish Jews like Shylock. Furthermore, in each enactment of their violence, they are essentially making laws. This becomes critical in analyzing different points in the play, particularly in regard to Shylock’s forced conversion. Until this point, Portia has been arguing and operating purely from a legal perspective, but here the law is not consulted in determining Shylock’s punishment. Interestingly enough, while we view forcing someone to renounce their religion in favor of another as cruel, severe, and a functioning of the law as oppressive to minorities, especially considering Antonio thoughtlessly agreed to Shylock’s conditions in the first place, an Elizabethan audience may not. In fact, such an audience may have found it forgiving and a method for rehabilitating Shylock rather than punishing him. Keep in mind that Jews had been expelled from England in 1290, therefore, the knowledge under which Shakespeare was operating would have been based off abstract folklore and not tied to anything concrete. While today we subscribe to pluralism, Elizabethans would not have thought it wrong to think that they were inherently right and Jews were wrong, meaning that the ramifications of this punishment would not have resonated quite the same way. Within such a social and historical context, forcing Shylock to give up his Jewishness even without any actual grounds for its enforcement may easily have been read as forcing him to give up that which makes him evil in exchange for the sort of social and political safety only provided by the remedy of Christianity. This takes us to a course question of what constitutes justice, what constitutes punishment, and what constitutes reconciling disparate values, both then and now. In their making laws, the question also becomes how this will affect precedent. Portia herself had argued that Shylock was entitled to his due as a contrary ruling would set the precedent that the law will not enforce all bonds. However, there is not much commentary on the type of precedent that the forced conversion ruling sets. If defaulters on loans find their method of payment unmerciful, will they automatically be granted a solution against their lender? Or will the lender be subject to forced conversion simply for seeking the loan’s enforcement?

At its core, reading the play in this way shows how the fact that laws are controlled and formed to benefit a dominant group means that laws can not only sanction, but also be complicit in discrimination. In other words, laws support both moral and immoral ends. One of the countless ways by which the law sanctions discriminating against Jews in the play is economically speaking. For Antonio lowering Shylock’s usury rates and, thus, jeopardizing his livelihood, Shylock exclaims how “I hate him for he is a Christian…” Antonio openly defames Shylock, which, at the time, would be reprimanded under the law. Still, Shylock’s Jewishness makes his subservient under the law and allows him to be defamed without any talk of legal recourse. Since as a Jew, he is not afforded the same protection under the law, the law indicates that Jews did not even possess freedom in the form of social mobility. Granted, Shylock’s condition is heinous and would lead to an immoral end; yet, the law – what is supposed to be the moral end – insists upon its execution. Does law have intrinsic value? One reading of the play associates a Jew who wants and is able to bring a case before his city’s courts even though he is of a hated minority with the law facilitating equal treatment. However, this implies that there must also exist a common good. Therefore, another reading would find this problematic and unjust as the law was not abided by when a member of the ruling class was to potentially meet unfavorable consequences. In this way, law in the play can be read as catering only to the ruling Christians and as not actually demonstrating mercy as a force for good in a court of equity. Still, whichever way the play is read, Shylock is led into a trap, refuses to show mercy, and is subject to “illegal, unjust, and immoral” criminal proceedings. Antonio, on the other hand, does not lose anything and, instead, advances due to Shylock’s loss. It is unclear between Shylock and Antonio as to who is offered justice and who receives the law. Maybe it would have been perceived at the time as a larger sort of poetic justice. A critical legal reading of the play might then understand that, instead of being a blind saving grace that champions equality for those who face injustices, it oftentimes facilitates the very same injustices. What a lawyer may extrapolate from this is that, in order to facilitate justice, they must assess their moves within the context of the structural institutions within which they work. Still, a critical legal reading of the play could easily also find that if such a text could be used as anti-Semitic propaganda, then literature can have quite a lot of influence over the creation and enforcement of law. This makes texts and the way by which they are interpreted potentially dangerous. From this a problematic question asked in On Trial emerges: what is propaganda and what is literature?

While many claim that this play is anti-Semitic and many others claim that it is an attack on this sort of injustice, there is no definitively correct interpretation. Admittedly, in looking at the specific lines of the play, it is unquestionably anti-Semitic, but only doing this fails to take into account this piece of literature in its entirety. Conversely, simply interpreting the play as an attack on injustice fails to take into account the actual language employed; audiences are still subject to the same abhorrent language. It is unsurprising then, that as the Nazis used M – a film in which viewers tend to sympathize with the main character in the end – to argue a completely opposite point for the “depraved nature” of Jews, so too did they use The Merchant of Venice as propaganda. This may indicate that it is not the play itself that presents ideas for or against anti-Semitism, but the way by which the play is presented, likely the reason why there have been countless different portrayals of Shylock throughout history. In the end, it is simply a play and the only thing we can know for certain is that Shakespeare was crafting characters. The concept of “death of the author” dictates that there is absolutely no way of knowing whether he was concerned with either anti- or pro-Semitism, except in the way it shaped individual characters in his plays to produce the necessary drama that he was attempting to create. As such, the play can only be said to be about anti-Semitism. While the law is meant to be precise and not have many interpretations, literature is elusive and largely functions to teach a moral code.

It is worth considering who the “merchant” of Venice actually is. Traditionally, the title of Shakespeare’s tragedies are his tragic heroes. While Antonio is commonly claimed to be the merchant, he is largely absent from the play. On the other hand, Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to follow a formula whereby the tragic hero is spoken of before they enter in the first act. Shylock fits this mold by entering only in the third scene of the first act. While the play is supposed to be a comedy, audiences are often left feeling as if they just bared witness to something tragic. In terms of his being a tragic hero, Shylock is unquestionably the most tragic character in the play. He begins as a towering personality holding much power as a lender. Shylock clearly struggles with good and evil; while he demonstrates great humanity and personal attributes, his pursuit of vengeance is blinding and darkening to his character. Thus, like most tragic heroes, he deals with the suppression of good and dominancy of evil. His hamartia, at its core, is his desperate need to get back at those who have wronged him and his naiveté in believing that the law would serve justice. In the end, it becomes for him, a story of calamity and tragedy, culminating in him losing everything, including his identity. Indeed, in this context, it is unsurprising then that Portia asks, “Which is the merchant here, and which the Jew?”

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