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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
Ambiguous Words
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1826  Monday, 22 September 2003

[1]     From:   Anthony Burton <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Sep 2003 11:03:05 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Sep 2003 16:06:40 -0700
        Subj:   RE: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words

[3]     From:   Melvyn R. Leventhal <
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        Date:   Friday, 19 Sep 2003 22:40:38 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Anthony Burton <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Sep 2003 11:03:05 -0400
Subject: 14.1819 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words

This list shares a nearly universal and serious misleading assumption
about the whole pound-of-flesh contract which Shylock seeks to enforce,
to the effect that Shylock inveigled Antonio into its particularly
onerous terms.  In fact, Shylock demanded only pound of flesh from
wherever he chose, and then entrusted Antonio to "give [the notary]
direction for this merry bond." So, the nearest-to-the-heart provision,
all absence of requirements for a surgeon, or late payment at a penalty,
etc., issues raised on Antonio's behalf at the trial, were presumably
within Antonio's power to anticipate and avoid in his directions to the
notary, both of whom were Venetians and presumably knew the same rules
of law that Portia later pulls out of her sleeve to defeat Shylock's
claim.  But we know that Antonio was "sad" (melancholy, suicidal,
discontent in some deep way), and that at trial he was more than
willing, even eager, to accept the stringent penalty of the contract.
Although excessively onerous contract provisions may sometimes render an
entire contract unenforceable, it is not the case when the offending
provisions are drafted by the party who later finds them oppressive.
There is a good deal more to be said about Shylock's supposed and
equally misunderstood malice, but let me confine myself here to the
thought that all he really demanded was enforcement of terms drafted at
the request of Antonio himself, his long-time adversary.

This being said, it would seem that any discussion of ambiguous words is
bound to reach unsound conclusions, if it is itself governed by hasty
and inaccurate assumptions about the equities of the case, that is to
say, the respective roles of plaintiff and defendant in regard to the
contract between them, especially as to their respective intentions,
good faith, and waiver of possible defenses (or assumption of possible
risks) to strict enforcement.

Tony Burton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Sep 2003 16:06:40 -0700
Subject: 14.1819 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        RE: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words

Todd Pettigrew observes that

"On the matter of the exact pound of flesh, I would say that Shylock
ruins himself. It is Shylock who insists on the exact letter of the bond
throughout the first part of the hearing. He will not take the money
owed to him, he will not take the money plus a huge penalty, he will not
provide a surgeon, all because it is not exactly stipulated in the
agreement. This tactic is especially vicious since the pound of flesh
was originally suggested by Shylock as a mere joke and not to be taken
literally. Shylock, like Laertes, is undone by his own villainy."

That's true, but nobody else seems to seriously question the validity of
the bond, even though it might lead to Antonio's death, never mind
Shylock's humiliation.  Can we really believe that fewer strangers will
trade with Venice because it doesn't recognize murder contracts as
binding?

Cheers,
Sean.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Melvyn R. Leventhal <
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Date:           Friday, 19 Sep 2003 22:40:38 EDT
Subject: 14.1819 Ambiguous Words
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1819 Ambiguous Words

Elsewhere in Shakespeare, Shylock's unsuccessful ploy is referred to as
being "hoist[ed] with [one's] own petard [bomb]."  Hamlet, Quarter Text
of 1604, Act 3, Scene 4, line 209 (omitted from Folio).

"The biter bit" joke is one that Elizabethans loved as much as jokes
about cuckoldry.  See, Introduction, p. 11 to Oxford Edition of Merchant
of Venice, (Halio, Editor).

All this is further evidence that the trial scene of Merchant of Venice
is intended as part of the comedy. Merchant of Venice is a romantic
comedy, throughout.

Melvyn R. Leventhal

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