Concept of justice in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice” and “Much ado about Nothing”
The kind of justice delivered in these two plays is very peculiar and strange. In one play a man is bared from getting his due share by playing the jugglery of words and in the other play a chaste woman’s character and honor is tarnished without any sin, fault or mistake committed on the p[art of the accused. Now let us discuss these injustices in these two plays, “Merchant of Venice” and “Much ado about nothing” written by Shakespeare, in detail.
The trial scene in the play “Merchant of Venice” is the scene in which Antonio is tried in the court of Venice for his failure to repay the money he had borrowed from Shylock. According to the terms of the bond, the Jew has now the right to cut a pound of flesh from near the heart of Antonio. Shylock insists on his right, and so comes to the court that his right be granted to him. Antonio is tried in the open court and the money is offered to him several times over. However, shylock remains adamant on his claim, and insists hat his pound of flesh be granted to him. Portia acts as the advocate, and pleads with him to show mercy but all in vain. Then ultimately she sprang a surprise upon him. She tells him that he may cut the pound of flesh, but he must not shed even a single drop of blood as it is not in the bond, and that he should take neither less nor more than one pound. The tables are thus turned upon the Jew, he is defeated, and as penalty for plotting against the life of a Venetian, he is made to change his religion and become a Christian, and all his property is confiscated by the state. He leaves the court a broken down old man; most probably he totters to his death-bed.
It can be said that it is just legal quibbles with which shylock is defeated and beaten. The legal position taken by Portia is unjust, absurd and a mere word-jugglery. It is a complete travesty of law. If shylock has a right to the pound of flesh, his right to shed blood in taking it goes without saying. The Venitians of the play seem to be strangely ignorant of the nature of flesh and blood. As for the second objection raised by Portia, there is nothing to prevent shylock from cutting off less than a pound , since every creditor may, if he chooses, remit a part of his dues and discharge a debtor. After all, we need not labor the point so much. Now it is a familiar rule of law that the right to a certain act confers the right to the necessary incidence of that act. Portia might as well object to shylock’s using a knife, because a knife is not mentioned in the bond, as object to his spilling blood because it is not mentioned in it.
It may also be said that the trial scene illustrates the truth that a right becomes a wrong by too much insistence on the letter of the law. Shylock certainly had the law on his side; he had the right to cut the pound of flesh. But he insisted on the letter of the law, refused to accept money several times over offered to him, and even refused to call the doctor, because it was not in the bond. Such insistence on the letter of the law makes his right a wrong, and, therefore, it is in the fitness of things that the same letter of the law is brought against him, and strictly enforced. Looked at from this angle, the trial scene does not seem a mere piece of nonsense; it becomes an illustration of an essential truth. Portia provides in-depth conception Shakespearean justice in the following lines;
The quality of mercy is not strained./ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath. . . ./ . . .It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;/ It is an attribute to God himself,/ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
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. (IV.i.179–197)
In “Much ado about nothing” another injustice is done by tarnishing the character of a chaste lady Hero. In the age of Shakespeare the honor of women and her virginity were the most important things for a woman and when her character is called into question and proven false her whole social standing and thus her life become ruined. When fingers were raised and allegations made on the chastity of a woman then either the blood spilled in duels of honor or the marriages dissolved. Here, in this play “Much ado about Nothing” Hero is disgraced publicly when Claudio-the person with whom she was going to be married on that day declared her as a characterless, and corrupt woman. He laments that “O she is fallen / Into a pit of ink, that the wide sea / Hath drops too few to wash her clean again” (IV.i.138–140). The gross injustice is that time is that if reputation or character of a man is defiled or declared as corrupted he can won his reputation back by fighting a duel or such other thing but this opportunity is not provided to women and if their character is tarnished they have no remedy left to them. It is only their male companions who can fight on their account to won their reputation back. Just as in this play, Beatrice urges Benedick to avenge Hero’s honor by dueling to death with Claudio. Now even though Hero is ultimately washed out of the accusation but her public shaming and insult at the wedding ceremony is too much to be ignored and forgiven. In a way this sort of humiliation heaps more filth and insult to her honor and to the proud name of her family than if she would have actually committed an unchaste act.
Jami Rogers. Shylock and History. The Merchant of Venice. Masterpiece Theatre. Retrieved on
22 July 2008. Website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/merchant/ei_shylock.html
Cohen, D. M. The Jew and Shylock. Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Spring, 1980), pp.