Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

SHAKESPEARE: The Merchant of Venice

One of the great recurring themes in the Great Books is the question of justice: what is it and how do we achieve it? The first Great Book of Western civilization, Homer’s Iliad, begins with this very subject. King Agamemnon has his girl/war prize taken away so in return he takes away Achilles’ girl/war prize for himself. Is this justice? Agamemnon thinks so but Achilles is outraged. The reason Achilles is in Troy in the first place is because Agamemnon’s sister-in-law, Helen, has been taken by the Trojan prince Paris. Now the Greeks want to sack the whole city of Troy in revenge. Is this justice? The Greeks think so; the Trojans think not. Why should innocent Trojans have to suffer because of what Paris did? Many Western thinkers since Homer have tackled the thorny problem of justice.

Shakespeare takes up this issue in The Merchant of Venice. What’s a fair punishment when someone doesn’t repay a loan? Should punishment be the same for everyone, or should each punishment be tailored to fit the specific situation? Does a person’s background make any difference when a judge decides a case? In this play we have a character that’s hard to like. Shylock is shrewd, devious and demands justice in harsh terms. Antonio owes him money. Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh as payment, literally. Plus, he wants a pound of Antonio’s flesh that is closest to the heart. At this point Shylock appears to us as the embodiment of evil. When Portia, disguised as a judge, offers a way out for Antonio then we see the pendulum swing back to the middle. Antonio won’t have to die because he owes Shylock money. Justice will be served. But then the pendulum keeps on swinging and Shylock not only loses the money he had lent Antonio, he loses everything he has. This seems too much. The pendulum has swung too far the other way and now we have injustice on the other side. Shylock may be mean and cruel but he’s still a human being. He puts it this way I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? Jews are human beings. So are Muslims. Even terrorists are human beings. The most vicious criminal is still a human being. They have eyes and hands. They eat the same food and feel hurt, just like we do. They bleed and laugh and die, just the way we do. The question for modern Americans is: how should we punish fellow human beings? The question posed by Homer at the dawn of Western civilization remains the same. What is justice, in human terms?

Put another way, what should we do? Shakespeare knows there are no easy answers. Portia says If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. If you think it’s hard trying to decide what to do, just wait until you try actually doing it. Portia goes on to say It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. Out of twenty people who know what’s right maybe only one will actually do it. Maybe not even one. Why is that? Portia goes on to explain that The brain may devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree: such a hare is madness the youth, to skip o'er the meshes of good counsel the cripple. We’re flesh and blood, just as Shylock said. Justice takes hard thinking but Portia reminds us that this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. Life must go on; I need a husband. Philosophers may think about justice but lovers think about each other. For Shakespeare that’s poetic justice.


Post a Comment

<< Home