Monday, November 6, 2023

legal wiseguy

Our play-reading group has just finished with The Merchant of Venice, and rather than discuss the anti-semitism in the play, I'd like to address the twists in logic in the trial scene.

Shylock the moneylender, who has a major grudge against Antonio the merchant - the why of which goes back to the anti-semitism, so not for discussion today - lent him a large sum of money with a quaint forfeit should Antonio default: a pound of flesh from around Antonio's heart, to be cut out by Shylock himself.

Antonio did default, and now we've gone to court to test if the forfeit is valid. Portia in disguise appears as a learned attorney.

First she establishes that the forfeit is real and that Antonio agreed to it. Then, with a famous speech on the quality of mercy, she asks Shylock to be merciful. He refuses, and says he'll give no reason. He is offered twice the original loan amount, but says he'd rather have his bond.

Very well, says Portia, cut away.

But hold! she adds. You must not shed one drop of blood nor take an ounce more or less than a pound of flesh, lest your life be forfeit.

Shylock says, in that case I'll drop my demand and take the monetary offer.

Not a chance, says Portia. You said you'd have your bond.

This is the first place where Portia plays legal wiseguy. Shylock's refusal of the monetary offer was conditioned on his ability to take the forfeit. You've changed the conditions from when he made the choice. By making it in practice impossible for Shylock to take the forfeit - no demurrals now, you know that's what you've done - you've made it impossible for him to get what he says he wants, so he is justified in choosing again.

Then Portia cries hold! again. By seeking Antonio's life, and it's clear that threatening the pound of flesh is doing so, Shylock has broken Venetian law and again his life and goods are forfeit.

But wait a minute. Legal wiseguy again. If all that is true, then the loan was always invalid. Shylock should have been arrested when he first proposed the notion; if not, it still should have been thrown out of court at the first opportunity.

Having tricked and bamboozled Shylock, Portia proceeds to trick and bamboozle her own husband over a ring she gave him. WTF?

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