It has been almost four hundred years since Shakespeare completed the last of his plays. His work however continues to be played to sell out audiences still captivating people. His plays are still taught in schools with eager passion. Many people question the relevance of his work and lingering popularity. So what could a playwright from the seventeenth century have absolutely anything to do with a world full of advancing technology, fast food and materialistic views?
The Merchant of Venice is a realistic play because it shows that life isn’t always fair and things don’t always wrap up neatly. The two main scenes in particular which highlight the ambiguous nature of justice in the play are when Jessica breaks her familial bond with her father and stealing Shylock’s wealth depicts a covenant bound in tradition and loyalty rather than law, while on the other hand the contract between Antonio and Shylock for a ‘pound of flesh’ is an example of a legal and unorthodox contract. The theme of justice as well as mercy are also seen in the play when Portia is acting the part of a Doctor of Laws at court.
Throughout the whole play, Shylock is the epitome of justice as he understands it. Shylock’s reaction to constantly being spat on by the Christians brought him to a locked idea of revenge on them for justice. This can compare to the way humans act when they are bullied or they are being treated below others. Shylock doesn’t give any chances to Antonio when he can’t make the repayment of the three thousand ducats but clearly demands exactly one pound of flesh be paid to him. One of the most memorable quotes from the play was Shylock’s speech in Act 3, Scene 1 to Salario and Salanio “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?” The speech he delivers isn’t a celebration of shared experience but a monologue that allows the audience to sympathize with him as his right to decent treatment has been so neglected that he must remind them that he has ‘hands, organs, dimensions, senses” similar to theirs even though he isn’t a Christian.
Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, breaks her dad’s heart by running away to marry Lorenzo, a Christian and helps herself to her dad’s ducats and some treasured family valuables. Shylock’s reaction to Jessica taking his wealth is using the technique of a soliloquy being “'My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! Fled with a Christian! O my Christian ducats!” Even though we perceive Shylock in a negative light most of the time, his reaction to Jessica’s behaviour and actions only shows us his human side. On top of Jessica marrying a Christian she has also converted to one, which is portrayed as an act of abandonment. This is an allusion from 1 Corinthians 7:14 in the New Testament where it says “the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband”.
Shylock’s character is greatly contrasted to the attitudes of Portia and Antonio in Act 4. As Christians they are expected to show mercy that Shylock is judged as being incapable of showing. Portia, disguised as the lawyer says “The quality 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”. Even as she follows the standard procedure of asking Shylock for mercy, Portia reveals her skills by appealing to his logical reasoning rather than emotion and warns Shylock that his quest for justice without mercy may result in his own damnation. Portia’s monologue becomes an ultimatum, a final chance for Shylock to save himself before Portia crushes his legal arguments later on. Shakespeare foreshadows Shylock by showing that he lost all his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo, which now has an outcome of Shylock losing everything he is worth to Portia’s arguments.
In any situation we want to be treated fairly and don’t want to be judged on any aspect. Because we have this strong desire for equality and fairness, the assurance of justice is required for a good society, and that is why it is strongly important to actually learn and study justice. We must be aware of the social issues concerning justice in the world, which can be seen through the Merchant of Venice because of its universal themes. In Shakespeare’s plays we are able to see relevance to our society and adapt them to us. So would it be just to not study about justice? Something tells me that Shakespeare would say no.