‘The Merchant of Venice’ was written by William Shakespeare probably around 1596; as a result the audience then was very different from today. During that period the play was written and based the treatment of Jews was very different from today, the reason being society often refuses to except immigrants as actual people that believe still exists today, the treatment of Jews was very poor, Jewish people were not allowed to hold employment except for the job of money lender, this made the Jewish people even more despised by the Christians of the time.
The basic idea of the Jew and the merchant dates back centuries before Shakespeare’s time. The main story is a composed of aspects and ideas from many other stories, the idea of choosing caskets comes from ancient medieval folk tales, shylock is based on the Jew in Marlow’s play ‘The Jew of Malta’, Portia’s decision making scene (Act One Scene II), appears in Shakespeare’s earlier pay, ‘two Gentlemen of Verona’ these links to other stories made the play very popular and familiar to Elizabethan audience.
By putting this story in its social context, it is clear that modern society will have a different perspective on the story than their Elizabethan counterpart. Shakespeare’s target audience would find the irony around Shylock an area of comedy, however a more modern audience would be more inclined to feel sympathetic towards him. The Elizabethan audience would have relished in the story with the villain everyone loves to hate, lots of romance, a good old fashioned Christian hero and a happy ending, sounds just like an episode of Eastenders!
The play examines justice in several ways by using two types of justice, firstly legal justice this is the type of justice played out in a courtroom, and secondly moral justice this is the type we expected to do itself, people comeuppance. Several characters are used as vessels for these types of justice, such as Antonio, Shylock and Portia. Having several storylines all on the theme of justice brings an air of uncertainty around who actually gets justice.
The story begins with Antonia and Bassanio discussing Bassanio’s need for money to woe Portia. Antonio suggests Bassanio borrowing money from a moneylender and name Antonio as the loans guarantor. Shylock offers to lend Bassanio the sum of three thousand ducats, however if the loan is not repaid in full within three months Shylock will be entitled to one pound of Antonio’s flesh. Bassanio heads of to Portia and Jessica, shylocks daughter runs of with Antonio’s friend, Lorenzo along with most of shylocks riches. Meanwhile Bassanio is met with a challenge set by Portia’s dead father, two other suitors have failed the test, much to Portia’s relief, Bassanio selects the correct casket and wins Portia’s hand in marriage.
Graziano, Bassanio’s friend falls in love with Nerissa Portia’s lady in waiting. The couples get married, the marriage celebrations are cut short by news that Antonio has bee forced to forfeit the bond to Shylock. Bassanio and Graziano race to his aid. Portia and Nerissa secretly follow the to Antonio’s trial. Shylock ignores the many pleas to save Antonio. The Duke of Venice sends for a legal expert or Portia in disguise. Portia manages to press charges against Shylock, and he is forced to convert to Christianity and give up all of his wealth, after the trial everyone celebrates their good fortune.
One of the most important issues to consider is the bond between Antonio and Shylock. The bond enables Shylock to claim one pound of flesh from Antonio if Bassanio fails to repay the three thousand ducats in three months. The bond was signed fairly and is legally binding, however it could be argued that when the contract was signed Antonio was pressured into signing it. There had always been a long-standing disagreement between Shylock and Antonio. Antonio often lends money to people interest free, ruining shylocks business.
“How like a fawning publican Iooks.
I hate him for he is a Christian:
But more, for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him on the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation,…”
Shylock about Antonio, (Act 1 Scene III)
During the conversation between Antonio, Shylock and Bassanio, Shylock uses a bible story to explain how important a guarantee is, in any deal to which Antonio replies:
“The devil can cite scripture for his purpose,” Antonio (Act 1 Scene III)
Shylock and Antonio start to argue about there bitter past, Shylock turns the fiery discussion back to the bond, Antonio agrees to the bond, it could be argued that Shylock took advantage of Antonio’s pride. From a legal perspective the bond is perfectly legal however, morally some would say that putting a price on any amount of human flesh is wrong, a second moral issue is whether or not Shylock had the specific pound of flesh in mind when he announced the bond. The conflict between Jews and Christians is partly to blame for the serve punishment.
The bond is defiantly legally binding however morally it is unclear how just the bond is. The guarantee for the bond is unfair as it is immoral to price Antonio’s heart and the conditions under which it was signed forced Antonio to agree.
Antonio’s trial is one of the most important events in the terms of deciding who gets justice, when looking at the trial the crucial things to remember are; Portia is not a judge and is breaking laws by impersonating one, the court case is biased against Jews and Antonio is held in high regard by the Duke who is overseeing the case.
Legally the case is void from the moment it begins as Shylock is unfairly represented, as Portia is impersonating the judge or legal expert, legally Shylock was entitled to a retrial, however apart from this the anti court is anti-Semitic, also Antonio brought along an army of supporters, with the entire courtroom and legal system against him Shylock still has the bond which is legally binding. Shylock is entitled to his pound of flesh.
Antonio’s behaviour in the courtroom is simply subtle way of lulling the courts around to his way of thinking, he plays up to the role of Christian martyr, Antonio the victim, Daniel in the lions den, as he puts it, what we should remember is Antonio’s treatment of Shylock prior to the case, we know from there first meeting Antonio has always stuck for himself giving as good as he gets and often a bit more.
When it comes to the crunch, Portia finds a loophole in the bond the only legally binding scrap of hope Shylock has, Portia discovers Shylock is entitled to one pound of flesh exactly and not a drop of blood, however if we read back to the point where the bond is agreed it states a pound of flesh to be cut out and taken, therefore Portia’s point is petty and would be disregarded in any fair trial. The second offence Portia tries to pin on Shylock is conspiring to kill a Venetian citizen, Shylock was not trying to kill Antonio if Antonio dyes as a result then it becomes a different matter.
Both of Portia’s points are unjust and unfair, shylocks punishment is very harsh, Shylock instead offers to accept the thrice the bond Bassanio offers gladly, however Portia refuses it, we must question is this her fight for justice or the fact Bassanio’s purse is full of her money. By forcing Shylock to become a Christian, forfeit his possessions to the state, and forgive his daughter, Antonio is simply mocking Shylock, what do they gain from his punishment. In a fair court the whole case would have been dismissed.
When deciding who gets justice, Shylock defiantly receives none of the justice he deserves. The only possible is the bond was server and he deserves his punishment, however, Shylock isn’t really evil he has simply bee bullied into the twisted bitter old man we see at the trial by years of anti-Jew ways, his daughter running of with a Christian just before the trial and not having a wife.
In terms of Portia and Jessica there are similarities between them, both of them have been set rules by there fathers, Portia follows hers and her father although dead, receives the moral justice he deserves however Jessica ignores her rules adding to the justice Shylock is denied.
Antonio on the other hand deserves nothing, he was under no obligation to agree to the bond, although he was undertaking it for the right reasons, Bassanio the reason for the bond tried to persuade Antonio to not bother but Antonio’s pig headed pride takes charge. Furthermore Antonio’s treatment of Shylock was utterly appalling and is the ultimate reason for shylocks bitterness. Although it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t repay the loan, the only reason he entered into it in the end was to prove a point over Shylock. Antonio deserves nothing but somehow justice is miscarried and he gets everything.
Portia gets the justice she deserves for obeying her fathers wishes, by Bassanio winning the challenge, however she wrongs Shylock and robs him of his livelihood, and lies to the court, she escapes justice as she should have been tried.
In conclusion, Shylock is the one who should be getting the justice as he deserves it, but it is robbed from him by those who don’t.