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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
Ambiguous Words
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1812  Thursday, 18 September 2003

From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 17 Sep 2003 10:40:31 -0500
Subject: 14.1807 Richard III: Good Man
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1807 Richard III: Good Man

I'm wondering about ambiguous word meanings that seem both fraudulent in
the sense of being half truths, and traps to snare a victim.  It's
something like what Macbeth experiences when, confident that he need not
fear any man not of woman born, faces his nemesis Macduff who reveals
that he is such a man, "from his mother's womb untimely ripped," i.e.,
born in the caesarian manner.  It seems fraudulent to define such a man
as not of woman born when what is really true is that he was "not of
woman born, naturally or in the usual way.  (Otherwise what is Macbeth's
mother (any such mother) if not a woman, i.e., what is such a mother,
chopped liver?)  Macbeth, feeling the fraudulence-just as we often feel
it in advertising when the fine print reveals that we are not getting
what we thought we were getting-cries out about fiends (witches) who
"palter with us in a double sense, that keep the word of promise to the
ear, and break it to our hope."

Given all that, can someone resolve some questions I have about an
ambiguity in the "pound of flesh" demanded of Shylock for forfeiture of
the 3,000-ducat bond.  Portia (Balthazar) says the law requires Shylock
to take exactly a pound of flesh, but no blood. Four questions:

First, why such exactitude regarding measurement (pound) here and not
elsewhere in society, e.g., markets?  This seems a fraudulent ad hoc
requirement merely to trap the Jew.

Second, and ignoring the first, if Portia's requirement that no blood be
shed is valid-that an alien shedding the blood of a Christian is
illegal-wasn't the contract allowing for a pound of flesh (which would
have to be bloody) invalid, which would mean Shylock has no valid
contract and therefore no case, i.e., the court should not even hear the
case?

Third, and ignoring the second, if Shylock has no case-if his contract
is invalid-how can the court legally condemn him, even as an "alien"
seeking the life of a "citizen"-shouldn't it go after the Christian who
drew up the invalid contract?

Finally, is there not irony in Portia urging the Jew to be merciful
(speaking about the quality of mercy being not strained) yet being
cruelly merciless in undoing him by a legalese traps which I am
questioning.

David Cohen

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