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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: October ::
Re: Merchant
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.2398  Friday, 19 October 2001

From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Thursday, 18 Oct 2001 17:26:04 -0700
Subject: 12.2388 Re: Merchant
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.2388 Re: Merchant

Hi, Gabriel.

>Please do not think I'm quibbling, but since 'murder' means the unlawful
>killing of a human being, it is tautological to refer to the illegality
>of murder. Portia refers to the taking of a life without calling it
>murder. One is surely to suppose that the statute in question goes
>beyond what definition of murder we are entitled to assume.

Indeed it does, and it's interesting in how it does.  I don't think that
this detracts, however, from the initial surprise when Portia pulls the
law out of her hat like a rabbit.  Why didn't anyone think of this
earlier?

Perhaps my use of the term 'murder' was a little misleading.  Let's say
that killing human beings is normally considered murder, an illegal
activity in any community that wants to maintain itself.  There are
exceptions, of course:  classes of persons who are considered on par
with animals or situations such as self-defense, aggressive war or even
dangerous sports in which killing people is permitted and even praised.
In fact, when accepting his Nobel Peace Prize, Lester Pearson argued
that release from social constraints was part of the pernicious
attraction of war.  It would be unusual, in other words, to encounter a
society in which an alien, or anyone else, would be allowed to casually
slaughter any and everyone.  It would be so unusual, in fact, that we
would question whether to call this society a 'society', at all.  The
threat of execution, or the fate of the 'purchased slaves' to which
Shylock refers are exceptions that only make sense against a normative
framework in which such actions would generally be forbidden.

When Portia points out that laws do indeed forbid Shylock's actions, I
don't think we're wrong to be surprised that neither we nor the
characters on stage assumed that some sort of law like this would
exist.  Why does the bond seem, for a while, like it would legitimize
what we would recognize under almost any other circumstances as murder?
How does contract law come to have this extreme power in Venice?  How
did the laws of commerce come to eclipse all other sorts of
obligations?  And why does Portia wait so long before invoking the
(obvious, in retrospect) fact that there is a law against the killing
people?

I think that these questions are at least as pressing as that of why the
laws specifically govern the actions of 'aliens', though it is
fascinating that they do.  What would the punishment be for a Venetian
seeking the life of a Jew?  Presumably there must be some punishment, or
else the easiest way out of the bond would be to kill the lender, but it
isn't mentioned.

Cheers,
Se

 

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