On Shylock and the Merchant of Venice

Shakespeare’s strange creature, a moneylender from his “The Merchant of Venice” is a man driven by justice in a world that treats him unjustly. As a Jewish man living and working in a Christian community he is subject to strict laws regarding his physical movements, where he lives, who he does business with, and what business he can do. Nothing about how he is treated by the governing Christian authorities is just, fair, or unbiased. He must wear special clothing denoting his religious orientation so there can be no doubt by anyone who meets him that he is a Jew. Within the context of the play, the Christian moneylenders cannot and do not charge interest on loans they might make, but Shylock, being Jewish, is allowed to charge interest. He feels discriminated against because his Christian competitors can lend against him, cutting into his business. At one point, Bassanio, a young Venetian nobleman, asked Antonio for a loan. Antonio is having cash flow issues, so they turn to Shylock for the money, Bassanio borrows the money and Antonio guarantees the loan. In a curious turn of events, Shylock does not ask for interest, but if the loan is not paid on time, Shylock wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh. The play’s denouement occurs in a rather infamous courtroom scene presided over by a cross-dressing Portia who is acting as judge. Antonio has failed to repay the loan within the specified period, and Shylock is demanding justice. What Shylock does not understand, and what Portia understands only to well, is that justice is not meted out equally. There is justice for the Christian men who rule Venice, but women and Jews are forced to live with bias, bigotry, and injustice. As a woman, Portia is being forced to marry someone by her father, and as a woman, she has no say in the matter. The fact that she is cross-dressing in order to act within the trial pays tribute to the disenfranchised nature of all women within this society, their complete lack of agency and choice, and their inability to get justice from any of the established sources of power–the courts, the city council, or the Church. Shylock, though he keenly feels the bias and bigotry that informs his world, will insist on battling on this uneven playing field. Yet he fails to understand that his condition could be even worse because women have less rights than he has. An offer is made to Shylock to repay Bassanio’s loan, but since the details of the loan have not been fulfilled, Shylock wants his pound of Antonio’s flesh. In a very moving speech, the cross-dressing judge, Portia, urges Shylock to take the money and forget about justice, especially when Shylock insists on following the contract to the letter of the law, demanding, for once, that he be given justice and his contract demands a pound of flesh. Portia reminds Shylock that showing mercy and accepting the money would be a better solution than the one he is demanding. Shylock is immovable in his demand, but before Shylock can take his pound of flesh, Portia reminds him that if they are really going to stick to the letter of the law, then he, Shylock, cannot spill a drop of Antonio’s blood, which would be a violation of the contract which makes no mention of blood, just flesh. Shylock is foiled, Antonio is not hurt–all because one man, ignoring the good advice of someone who knows better, cannot understand the difference between mercy and justice and the fact that justice is not equal for all. The play speaks directly to the problem that justice is not meted out equally, that Lady Justice is not blind, and that all disadvantaged or marginal groups might hope for is a good solution, if not an equitable one. The play, then, is not hopeful when seen through a modern optic that deplores the obvious antisemitism marshaled by Antonio or the lack of agency which Portia must endure. One man is destroyed, another flourishes, justice is not observed, and the world turns.