The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0434 Tuesday, 8 March 2005
From: David Basch <
Date: Sunday, 06 Mar 2005 11:11:35 -0500
Subject: Answer to John-Paul Spiro's Questions
RE: Noble Shylock
Regarding the last round in the "Noble Shylock" discussion, I believe I
neglected to directly answer some of John-Paul Spiro's questions.
Reading my words over, I would answer his questions in the exerpt of his
words below more directly:
John-Paul Spiro wrote:
If Shylock never intended to actually cut Antonio's flesh
but rather just wanted a piece of his ox (did Antonio own
oxen?) then how can Portia penalize Shylock for wanting to
shed Antonio's blood? Why does Shylock refer to "your fair
flesh, to be cut off and taken/In what part of your body
pleaseth me" (1.3.134-35)?
The whole problem for Venice was that Shylock had a duly contracted bond
that had included the default penalty of taking "a pound of his fair
flesh." If Venice's contracts were to be regarded as trustworthy by the
world, then something had to be done to fulfill the bond and not fulfill
the bond at the same time if this were possible. Portia arrived to deal
with that problem.
The circumstance is unreal since the court could have declared this type
of bond unenforceable but the situation of the play is that the Venetian
court wanted to have its cake and eat it too. There could be no doubt
that Shylock, if he cut Antonio, would not walk out alive with bruisers
Bassanio and Gratiano around. So something was bound to occur in any
case that would make taking flesh from the defendent a thing not to happen.
Portia eggs Shylock on to think that the court would back him and
Antonio demands to be a martyr with his insults to Shylock. But Shylock,
if true to character, would have addressed the court, noting his awarded
claim, would a gesture of mercy, showing Jewish mercy in action to those
who think such is an oxymoron.
But at the very moment that Shylock is about to make this hypothetical
grand gesture, Portia brings it all to a halt by inserting the proviso
of exactness that could not be met leaving Shylock out on a limb,
leaving him with no capability of exacting his bond even if he wanted to
take it for real, and with no opportunity to make a merciful gesture.
They have caught him on the hip in the pose of a heartless assassin.
The situation is then used by Shylock's enemies to impoverish him, a
despised Jew, for his brazenness-a ploy now backed up by the court which
had up to then only wanted him curbed.
Again, I must note that the supposedly grizzly bond was an in-joke
between Jewish Shylock and a formerly Jewish Antonio and played on the
famous Talmudic formula of the penalty to be paid by the owner of the ox
that gored, to be taken "from his flesh," the flesh of the ox that
gored, which would be sold and the sale price that was "taken from his
flesh" divided between himself and the owner of the victim ox. It sounds
grizzly but in the context of the Talmudic penalty it is merely a jest.
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