Friday, November 10, 2006


A clash of moral systems: The case of Shylock and the Venetians:

A fallacy is a component of an argument which is demonstrably flawed in its logic or form, thus rendering the argument invalid.

Untranslatability is a term borrowed from Translation theory, meaning that no translation between languages is ever possible because each language is a closed, self-referential culturally bound, hermetic system.

In Shakespeare’s play, the Merchant of Venice, we are presented by two seemingly mutually-exclusive ethical systems: Judaism, as represented by Shylock, and Christianity as represented by the Venetians.

Literary critics claim that the real tug of war in this play is between Jewish legalism and Christian notions of merciful justice.

Antonio, the titular Merchant of Venice, and Shylock, the money lender, are two men, who would have been great partners in later times. But their relationship progresses against an uncompromising religious, social and cultural backdrop. Antonio is an insider, Christian, friend of the aristocracy, secure in his social acceptance. Shylock is a Jew, a pariah outsider in a hostile environment, tolerated because he has money and is of some use. He can only rely on the law and his money to protect him. The clash between the two comes to a head in a trial scene, where a standoff between the two evolves from a transactional dispute to a struggle between competing systems of morality.

The play is bracketed between two very famous speeches: Shylock’s “hath not a Jew” and Portia’s “Quality of mercy”. Shylock invokes a universal code for negotiating human rights between others. In this, Shylock attempts to pre-empt the brutality of his later confrontation with Antonio by appealing to the latter’s decency and compassion.

Portia explains in very beautiful terms that legalistic application of the law is not a humanistic type of justice which serves society’s good. “Mercy seasons Justice” she says, meaning that the quality of mercy makes the process of justice a matter of negotiating between human beings, makes it relevant to what it means to be a responsible person in a society.

The two speeches encapsulate the ideas that formed the basis for the universal charter for human rights: Shylock demands dignity of the individual, his basic right to the integrity of his body, his feelings, his right to make a living, his right to be enraged by insults and injustice. He speaks for the victim, the pariah, the other. Portia speaks for mainstream society when she claims that justice is only relevant when tempered with mercy. Justice without mercy feels too much like revenge, vengeance. Justice with mercy takes into account that we are all human and therefore fallible.

But what actually unfolds in the play is the very opposite.


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