It's clear that this play is regarded as one of the best of its kind in history based on its impeccably broad classification in genres like romantic comedy and dramatic play. Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" is a 16th-century play that was thought to have been composed between 1596 and 1599. The drama, also known as "The Jew of Venice," first acquired its copyright through James Robert's entry of it in the Stationers Company Register in 1958. In the spring of 1605, at the court of King James, the earliest performance was held, and this since time memorial has been in the historical record. The performances have been successfully been staged thereafter; as different versions and with different characters.
Overview of the Play
The overview of the play is based on how a large loan obtained from a Jewish moneylender forces a certain Venetian merchant to default. This is got from a renowned tale in England in the late 16th century about the forfeiture of a merchant's deadly bond after agreeing to stand for a friend's loan. It is characterized by the revenge attempts on Antonio by Shylock, and Bassanio and Portia's subplot. Many symbols, motifs and themes have been used and displayed in this master-piece. These include: love, self-interest, the law, hatred, denial, cyclical phenomena, divine quality of mercy, filial piety, and cross-dressing. The main aim of this paper is to provide a detailed description of the role of law in the society around which this play is embodied. Its effect on different characters and situation shall be analyzed to realize its overall impact on the society as a whole.
The Significance of Laws and Rules
It is evident that laws and rules are a significant foundation upon which the play heavily depends. Without laws to govern how people live, human beings cannot be distinguished from the savage animals and beasts of the forests. In the play, these laws did not only comprise of the rules specified in wills and contracts, but also the laws of the state of Venice as a whole. Laws and rules are known to produce better results when executed by the people with good intentions, but they can also be influenced for cruel or wanton purposes. A good knowledge of the law is important in order to stop any attempts of cleverly breaching its stipulations or misinterpreting its cause.
Law and Villainy: Shylock's Manipulation
Despite it being a wrong act, the law has been used to justify doing evil in the Venetian society if well mastered. Being a character with a vast knowledge in the law, Shylock is keen to device all of his plans within the context of the law, making him very terrifying at his cruelest. He never drifts from a letter in the law in search of his bond, unlike the Venetians who always bend the law to suit their desire. Shakespeare uses this to amplify his villainy deeming him a threat to Venice citizens' happiness. This shows that those who know the law well in society can use it to their advantage and swindle those who don't. They can claim anything wrong they do is legal as long as they are benefiting from it.
Laws and Vengeance
The law had a role to play in seeking vengeance. Shylock uses the society's cruelties in order to justify his own by using Venice's own laws. In his speech, he states, "You have among you many a purchased slave, which, like your asses and your dogs and mules, you use in abject and in slavish parts, because you bought them. Shall I say to you 'Let them be free, marry them to your heirs. Why sweat they under burdens? You will answer, 'The slaves are ours.' So do I answer you. The pound of flesh which I demand of him is dearly bought. 'Tis mine, and I will have it." The same injustices he references are the same ones he indulges in but tries to justify. Exposing the inhuman way of treating the slaves was never part of his plan. He reasons that he can buy part of the flesh of a Venetian citizen especially if Antonio and company can buy human flesh to "use in abject and in slavish parts". Thus, by merely extending the law to its most literal explanation, a vengeful quest is accomplished.
The Relationship Between Law and Love
In its dramatic nature, the play proceeds to explain the relationship between law and love through its characters. Antonio must not only use Shylock in order to hold Bassanio beyond the grave. He must make the law an instrument of his own suicide thus make it a murderer so that Portia can be defeated. However, to defeat Portia is not an easy task. She knows that Antonio's closest friend will develop an 'unquiet soul' and be lost forever to her if she allow Antonio to die for him. She knows that she must defeat Shylock so that she can save Antonio and eventually save her intended marriage. In addition to that, she cannot hinder Antonio from gaining at a temporary victory when she defeats Shylock. In this regard, both Bassanio and Gratiano decide to save Antonio by swearing that they will sacrifice the life of the wife they love. Antonio has finally compelled Bassanio to be defined to him by gratitude and Shylock to convert to Christianity hence completed his victory.
Manipulation of End Results Through Law
The law was used to manipulate the end result or scenario besides that which was initially predicted. For instance, it was used by Shylock to turn the institutions of Venice against themselves. Shylock's great mastery of the law enables him to turn the Venetian society's own institutions on each other. He dominates the play as being a very compelling character and becomes a sort of bogeyman. The fact that the harmonious condition of living is altered for the institutions of Venice is one thing. However, the fact that they are doing this against themselves without an outside enemy's input shows how much the law can be used to disturb the peace in a society. Also, it begins to seem like the city's devotion to the defined contracts will result in the tragedy at the time when Shylock is the strictest adherent to it. This speculation is altered upon Portia's arrival. The outcome is happiest ending of all when Portia arrives and manipulates the law in a very skillful manner. Shylock is forced to abandon his religion and Antonio is rescued; a happy ending, at least to an Elizabethan audience.
Law and Justice
The law also plays a role in explaining the aspect of justice in the play. Duke and Portia present mercy as an alternative to the pursuit of either law or revenge in the courtroom scene of Act 4, scene 1. Shylock is expected to show mercy when he goes to the court to demand his "pound of flesh", even though the law is on his side. He instead insists on getting his pound of flesh. Even though the Christians claim to have shown mercy by sparing Shylock's life, he himself explicitly refuses to do the same. In fact, he asks to be killed when they do so. He says he has nothing left to live for since all his possessions have been confiscated and his religious identity has been revoked. It therefore remains open who is or who is not merciful. Portia and Nessa forgive their husbands, repairing their broken romances in an unrealistic fashion; while the proceedings no longer involve Shylock. The wrongs of Antonio are never accounted for by him and the development of characters is little. Characters do not transform themselves because they never seem to realize their flaws. Here, justice is not comprehensively executed.
Equity and the Law
In the legal sense, it has been made possible to understand the concept of equity. This kind of justice is not strictly based on the formulated law, it is also based on the principles of fairness. It is the point at which the two scales of law and fairness find a perfect balance. This implies that there can be no justice when the basic principles of fairness are outweighed by an individual's adherence to the law. Furthermore, the time when Bassanio told the court to alter justice and fairness should the law bear no element of mercy, he may have had the most emotional statement on the nature of equity. He claims, "It must appear that malice bears down truth. And I beseech you, wrest once the law to your authority. To do a great right, do a little wrong." Shylock's initial proclamations are also evidences of the contrast between equity and the law, between strict construction and principles of fairness. He knows that the law is bias. He says in binary opposition to equity that, "I stand here for law" (IV.i.142) and "I crave the law" (IV.i.204).
The Law and Penalties
The law was provided penalties for different wrongs committed on the land. An alien who directly or indirectly sought the life of a Venetian citizen was to face strict penalties. Shylock's murderous attempt on Antonio would have been blocked by this rule from the beginning. As long as Shylock is thinking like a lone wolf and not like a Jew, Portia decides to hold this back. Forgetting the means and the ends were Shylocks weaknesses; forgetting that the law is not an end in itself. So Portia waits for Shylock to concede the main issue then brings on the tough penalties of the Venetian law. Shylock responds, "We take away a man's life when we take away his means to live" when the law tries to deny him access to all his property. Portia does not intend to threaten life by present the law, but to provide a means to it.
Contracts and the Law
Whether citizen or alien, the Venetian law strictly enforced contracts between two parties. As much as this shall be proven correct, it should be noted that in cases where a person commits an offence against the state, the strict enforcement of law was not required. Under the Venetian law, Portia makes it quite clear that mercy cannot be shown by the Duke in ways that encroach on the voluntary responsibilities that two parties have between them. As a result of the Duke's kindness to one party, the other party would suffer damage in such a case. However, whenever this does not encroach on Shylock's lawful responsibilities to others, Portia encourages the Duke, and thus the Venetian law, to be merciful to him.
The Law and the Triumph of Good
No matter how much the law can be manipulated, it shall always stand in favor of good and negate evil in the society. This can be realized in the misfortune that befalls Shylock due to Portia's intelligent approach of the law. As much as he tried to manipulate it to his own selfish advantages, the same law gave him a dose of his own medicine. His wealth is taken by Duke leaving him at a point of wishing for his own death. Even though Duke pardons the state's part of the fine after Antonio suggests certain conditions to be followed, Shylock is still stripped of all his financial and spiritual supports leaving him a broke man. The conditions were that Shylock must leave all his goods to Jessica and Lorenzo upon his death, Antonio will get half of Shylock's goods to be put in trust for Lorenzo and Jessica and he must become a Christianity.
It can therefore be concluded that the law had a huge impact in the society of the people of Venice. Despite the fact that it may have been misinterpreted or fallen victim to criticism, it was the guide for the co-existence of the people. This is because of the reasons mentioned and discussed in the previously. These are: it was used wrongly in the justification of evil-doing; it was to seek vengeance between rivals; it was helpful in contributing towards understanding different concepts such as love and equity; it was used to manipulate and change end results of situations; it assisted in explaining how justice procedures operated in the society and explaining how contracts were enforced between parties. Having a lot to teach in relation to today's society, this intriguing play shall possibly remain to be the classy work of art that it is even in the future.
Shakespeare, William, and Elizabeth Klett. The Merchant of Venice. 2016.