Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0375. Tuesday, 14 May 1996.
Date: Monday, 13 May 1996 16:39:37 PST
Subject: Merchant Query
I wonder if anyone knows how to resolve an ambiguity regarding the disposition
of Shylock's property at the end of the trial scene in "Merchant of Venice."
Antonio makes the proposal, which is accepted, that Shylock will have half the
property "in use, to render it/ upon his [i.e., Shylock's] death unto" Lorenzo.
A "use" at that time was a legal arrangement comparable to the modern trust.
The person who we call a trustee and who then would be said to hold property
subject to a "use" is and was said to hold legal title, but the beneficiary of
the trust or of the use holds and held equitable title. It is the equitable
title that has value.
The question is, who had the benefit to (i.e., who held equitable title of) the
land during Shylock's lifetime. In a footnote to an article I published a
couple of years ago, I cited one modern critic (Richard Weisberg) who assumes
Antonio holds the equitable title, and another (Lawrence Danson) who assumes
Shylock holds it. Each assumes his conclusion without defense or discussion.
In the footnote, I expressed the belief that Shakespeare, intentionally or not,
leaves the question unanswered. Does anyone know of an informed consideration
of this question?
The issue has a degree of significance for the interpretation of the play. At
the time Antonio makes this proposal, he is still under the impression that he
has been wiped out financially. The only asset he has is his right to half of
Shylock's property. He certainly is engaging in an act of generosity here,
because at a minimum he is giving Lorenzo the right to the property whenever
Shylock dies. But he may be rendering himself destitute in order to save
Shylock from destitution.
UCLA Law School