Bryan Caplan  

Shylock Was Robbed

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The best way to experience Shakespeare is on t.v. with the English subtitles on. Read Shakespeare, and you miss the visual cues; watch it performed, and you can't make out the words.

My latest foray into Shakespeare is the Al Pacino version of The Merchant of Venice. Days later, I still can't get over the brazen legal sophistry used to cheat Shylock out of his pound of flesh. The "arguments" come down to:

1. Shylock's contract was for a pound for flesh. Since it doesn't mention blood, he has to somehow extract the flesh without spilling any blood.

This bond doth giue thee heere no iot of bloud, The words expresly are a pound of flesh: Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian bloud, thy lands and goods Are by the Lawes of Venice confiscate Vnto the state of Venice

You could just as well invalidate a contract to sell a house by saying that the air inside still belongs to the seller. "The words expresly are a house: Then take thy bound, take thou thy house, But in entering it, if thou dost breathe One breath of air..."

2. Shylock's contract is for a pound of flesh. If he takes infinitesimally more or LESS (!), he's guilty of murder.

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh, Shed thou no bloud, nor cut thou lesse nor more But iust a pound of flesh: if thou tak'st more Or lesse then a iust pound, be it so much As makes it light or heauy in the substance, Or the deuision of the twentieth part Of one poore scruple, nay if the scale doe turne But in the estimation of a hayre, Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate

Imagine if we applied this approach to the sale of a pound of wheat: "if thou tak'st more Or lesse than a iust pound..."!

Oh, and then Shylock has to convert to Christianity to avoid execution.

You could say that everyone knows these legal arguments are nonsense, but in the age of the Chewbacca Defense, I have to wonder.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
TGGP writes:

I felt the same way reading it in English class. I never saw what the big deal was about Shakespeare, but this in addition made no sense. Shylock is treated awfully prior to the loan, making it a wonder he ever agrees to provide it. Antonio knows and accepts the terms, so he has no one to blame but himself. In addition he loses his daughter and more of his money for no justifiable reason. Finally, shouldn't the obligation of how the payment is to be delivered rest upon him rather than Shylock? The play simply sets out Shylock to be screwed over just because he's a jew.

As a strictly literary criticism, the quibbling over the technical minutiae of a contract or statement that allows the clever trickster to escape his fate may not have originated with Shakespeare, but its tired and idiotic overuse bring me to curse him for lending it any legitimacy in the eyes of critics.

Omer K writes:

In the real world, Antonio is deliriously happy about his ill-earned good fortune.

Shylock leaves the country. So do all the money lenders like him. (They go to America via the mexican border =P)

And Venice's economy falls into tatters because no one was willing to live frugally enough to amass enough money or skills to become a money lender after all the shylocks left.

10 years later, Venice sent out an appeal for the money lenders to come back and instituted benefits and lower taxes for them.

Unfortunately, this time around, the Shylocks did not come back because in a global economy with financial liquidity and mobility the Shylocks had enough of a choice to just say no to the inevitable cycle of discrimination simply for being better.

Overall, a happy story.

Oh by the way. Antonio died a pauper.

Omer K writes:

Theres a similar economic morality tale about Scrooge.

http://www.mises.org/story/573

Well worth reading.

ErikR writes:

Hmmm, I read it differently. Most of the play presented how badly treated the Jews were. (Incidentally, Jews were not allowed to own land in Venice -- I'm not sure if that comes through clearly in the play).

Shylock obviously resents his mistreatment. He is so bitter that he makes a ridiculous contract (what good is a pound of flesh?). He irrationally refuses to take triple pay instead of the pound of flesh.

As Shylock should have expected, the court screws him. This should have been easy for him to predict, since Jews were routinely treated as scapegoats and second-class citizens by the Christians of Venice. But Shylcok did not anticipate this, and irrationally held on to his demand, and was predictably screwed.

One can pity Shylock for how he is mistreated, but one cannot admire him for his foresight or cleverness in overcoming his persecution, and one certainly does not admire his ruthlessness.

Bryan looks at the court case and rightly criticizes the sophistry. I look at the battle of the religions and cannot understand how people who profess to live by their religous creeds can treat others the way that they do in this play.

I see a play about hypocrisy, hate, irrationality, and how this sad state of affairs results from a couple of opposing religions.

bill writes:

Shylock made a contract that was preempted by statute. Spilling blood was illegal, and his contract would have spilled blood. You can't enforce a contract for something that it illegal. You could not enforce a contract you make with your girlfriend that she get an abortion should she become pregnant, or that your husband get gastric bypass if he gains 100 pounds.

The criticism that they were being too exact in the measurement aspect is well made. The measurement would only have to be as exact as was common practice of the time.

The crazy verdicts of today are often publicized, but over stated. Mass emails detailing the man who recovered for putting his motor home on cruise control and then crashing after leaving the driver's seat to make coffee are false, they are just made up. The McDonalds coffee verdict only really awarded the injured lady a couple hundred thousand dollars for her injuries, which was offset by the percentage of negligence (I think like 20 or thirty percent) attributed to the lady. The millions in damages awarded were punitive, due to McDonald's knowledge of the fifty or more other people who suffered third degree burns from the coffee, many of which were worse, and also because the this was still done because it was cheaper to pay off people who were burned and sued than lower the temperature of coffee. (McDonalds advertised free refills on coffee, but served it so hot that nobody would be able to get a free refill unless they were in the store for a long time, because the coffee was so hot. People expect coffee to be hot, but not boiling, there was a company policy that the coffee be kept at a very high temperature, I think it was about 208 degrees.)

Many states limit damages for wrongful death that you can recover for the death of a loved one to 350,000 or less, or significantly less than that if the local government is respsonsible for the death. Many places do not allow you to recover anything if you see your cousin or best friend killed before your eyes. (although you could sue in many states for emotional distress, but only if you were somehow physically contacted in the incident) (other theories of recovery do allow one to recover much more in certain situations, although in many other situations one is limited by statute or simply unable to recover anything)

jaim klein writes:

Shylock tried to use the legal system to kill a person. It was not a business transaction, as he refused a profitable arrangement. It was illegal from the beginning and it cannot be enforced.

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