Friday, January 27, 2012

Law and Justice {Week 1 Response}

This semester I'm doing an independent study on "The Law and Justice in Shakespeare," and each week I am planning to write up a short response to one of the many things I'm reading. This week I had a little too much on my plate to get to everything that I read, but one of the chapters really pushed my buttons more than anything else. Here's my response to Kenji Yoshino's chapter on Portia of The Merchant of Venice -- "The Lawyer." It's rather disorganized, and there's so much more that I have to say about it, but for the sake of getting some ideas on the page ... well, here it is. I hope you enjoy my semester of ramblings!


Yoshino’s chapter on Merchant is driving me up the wall. He fixes Portia under the heading of “The Lawyer,” a categorization with which I wholeheartedly disagree. Portia does not advocate for either the plaintiff or the defendant. She offers an opinion on the case according the present statutes of law. This is the action of the judge, not the lawyer.

His desire for a “darker vision” and a “skeptical portrayal of Portia” is frustrating and, I think, completely contradictory to the structure of the play (31). Portia is the hero of this comedy, operating almost a deus ex machina for the titular character. Of course the play does not end happily for Shylock, but Shylock is the comic villain of The Merchant of Venice. And in comedy, the villain is not rewarded, not lauded, not loved -- unless we love to hate him. I would suggest that Shylock, while not rewarded, is treated with some degree of mercy and not only the justice that he so strongly demands.

Justice for Shylock’s actions -- which are indeed an attempt at killing an individual (“manifest proceeding” IV.i) -- would be, as Portia describes, the loss of his property and possibly his life. It is the mercy of the Duke that pardons his life, turns the seizure of his property to a fine, and the mercy of Antonio that turns the other half of his lost property into a “deed of gift” for his daughter and Lorenzo. I do think, from a 21st century sensibility, that the requirement of baptism goes too far and is not a merciful act, but it is not difficult to see that Antonio could certainly see it as mercy.

I would like to contest his reading of “The quality of mercy” at another time, but that would take too much space at present. Something I did find valuable from Yoshino’s chapter is his breakdown of the three tests which divide the play. His division, however, of whose trial each stood for was, for me, more questionable. He classifies the ring test in Act V as a test devised by Portia to entrap Bassanio. I think, however, that this is a test for Portia -- is she able to practice the mercy she’s preached in Act IV?

My sense of this play is that it weighs in balance mercy and justice, the spirit of the law and the letter of the law. I see this as Portia’s struggle throughout the play. The letter of the law does not always take into account the human spirit. This seems to be the lesson that Portia’s father wishes to impart. The casket test is not just for the suitors; it is for Portia as well. She finds a way to operate within the strict construction, the letter of the law, but she nevertheless is able to hint to Bassanio about what the correct choice will be. Does she therefore violate the spirit of the law? I would venture to say no, as who can imagine a father so draconian, who could raise such a daughter as Portia?

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