Since William Shakespeare wrote this play almost five hundred years ago, there have of course been innumerable reviews and interpretations of the work in several living languages, numerous stage play productions with adaptations sometimes to whatever were at the time the contemporary conditions.
The theme of this play seems to be among others, the meting out of poetic justice.
Poetic justice is defined as “the fact of experiencing a fitting or deserved retribution for one’s actions”. It is not what human beings call “justice”, which is usually prejudiced, narrow, vengeful and arbitrary. It reflects true justice which is above all, objective.
Let us see whether we, too, can mine this play for new treasures or, from a different perspective reflect again upon old treasures already unearthed.
The principal characters of the play are, Shylock the usurer or banker/money-lender, Antonio, a prince merchant who borrows from Shylock and for this pledges a pound of his flesh should he default on the day repayment is due, Bassanio, Antonio’s friend, on whose account Antonio borrows the money in order to allow Bassanio sue for the hand of Portia in marriage, and sundry characters and the magnificoes of Venice in the background.
Act I, Scene II:
We hear Portia saying:
Portia: 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. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions; I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching. 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. But this reasoning is not in the fashion to choose me a husband. O me, the word ‘choose’! I may neither choose who I would nor refuse who I dislike; so is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father. Is it not hard Nerissa, that I cannot choose one, nor refuse none?
Lesson: It is easier to prescribe rules for others than to follow them oneself.
Act I, Scene III:
Shylock: Three thousand ducats – well.
Bassanio: Ay, sir, for three month.
Shylock: For three month – well
Bassanio: For the which, as I told you, Antonio shaIl be bound. …
Shylock: This kindness will I show
Go with me to a notary, seal me there
Your single bond, and, in a merry sport,
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Express’d in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Antonio: Content, in faith; I’ll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in him who lends thus …
Lesson: Shylock seeks to bind Antonio to a contract, for defaulting which he will extract vengeance for past wrongs he perceives as having been done him.
Act II, Scene VII:
Prince of Morocco: O hell! What have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.
All that glitters is not gold,
Often have you heard that told;
Many a man his life has sold
But my outside to behold.
Gilded tombs do worms infold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgement old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d.
Fare you well, your suit is cold.
Lesson: Judge not by externals only, for not all that glitters is gold
Act III, Scene I:
Shylock: To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgrac’d me and hind’red me half a million; laugh’d at my losses, mock’d at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies. And what’s his reason? I am of a nation different to his. Hath not mine people eyes? Hath not mine people 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 is a man of Venice? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If one of my people wrong a Venetian, what is his humility? Revenge. If one of my people doth a Venetian wrong, what should his sufferance be by Venetian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute; and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.
Lesson: Shylock has not lent money out of charity but seeks, praying for default by Antonio, to repay with vengeance, which he hides behind the letter of the law, earthly justice.
Act III, Scene II:
Bassanio: So may the outward shows be least themselves;
The world is still deceiv’d with ornament.
In law, what plea is so tainted and corrupt
But, being season’d with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error but some sober brow
Will bless it, and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.
How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false
As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins
The beards of Hercules, and frowning Mars;
Who, inward search’d, have livers white as milk!
And these assume but valour’s excrement
To render them redoubted. Look on beauty
And you shall see ‘tis purchas’d by the weight,
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it;
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind
Lesson: Most human endeavours, of whatever kind, are focused upon and built for externals only, and people tend not to look behind the scenes for the reality
Act IV, Scene I
Portia: The quality of mercy is not strain’d;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth men show likest God’s
When mercy seasons Justice. Therefore, you, Shylock,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of Justice none of us
Should see salvation; we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there.
Lesson: In justice also lies forgiveness and the way upward. He who gives mercy, that is who tempers justice with mercy, shall likewise receive justice tempered with mercy from a Higher Hand.
The story is told of a great love and of a friendship which selflessly gives to help this love to fruition, and which a selfish man seeks, hiding behind the letters of the laws of Venice, to thwart by exacting a “pound of flesh”, and in trying to do which the merchant Shylock himself stands to lose everything he owns.