Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Weight of Contractsˡ in The Merchant of Venice

 Something of a teaser before Friday night's Merchant of Venice reading...

In William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, the bounds of the law are airtight—or so they seem. Portia’s dead father has stipulated the conditions for Portia’s marriage in his will. Antonio agrees to Shylock’s terms of a loan for Bassanio, agreeing to a pound of his own flesh as collateral. Portia and Nerissa make their husbands promise to keep their rings at all costs. The overarching concept of weight in The Merchant of Venice balances these precarious contracts on the scales of law.

It is unclear what binds Portia to her father’s will. Presumably, without fulfilling the stipulations of the will, Portia will not receive her inheritance. However, who is enforcing the will? Even Portia suggests a lack of enforcement when she states, “[S]o is the will of a living daughter curb’d by the will of a dead father” (1.2.24-25). The very person who wills Portia to adhere to specific terms under which she may marry is incapable of seeing his will carried out. Perhaps it is due to love and honor for her father that Portia will not abandon the will’s conditions as Nerissa seems to say: “Your father was ever virtuous, and holy men at their death have good inspirations; therefore the lott’ry that he hath devis’d in these three chests of gold, silver, and lead, whereof who chooses his meaning chooses you, will no doubt never be chosen by any rightly but on who you shall rightly love” (1.2.27-33). Nerissa also implies the soundness of Portia’s father’s reasoning and character. Even so, the weight of the will on Portia’s “little body” makes her “a-weary of this great world” (1.2.1-2). Contrastingly, Portia’s adherence to her father’s will still pushes the limits of that will. If Bassanio would only stay with her a while, Portia “could teach [him] / How to choose right” (3.2.10-11). However, she still falls back within the will’s bounds, recognizing that she is “forsworn” not to give away any clues (3.2.11).

Antonio, unable to pay Shylock’s loan, believes he must give up his life in order to pay the specified weight of a pound of his flesh when the promise of triple the sum owed to Shylock fails to appease him. Shylock in multiple instances demands revenge through “flesh and blood” even while arguing for the humanness of Jews (3.1.37).2 This repetition of the concepts of both “flesh” and “blood” throughout the play is reversed in the court scene when Portia, in disguise, resorts to the exact wording of the bond to decree that precisely one pound of flesh is granted Shylock, but he must find a way to take it without one “jot of blood” (4.1.306). This loophole threatens the scales of law, but they are able to remain balanced since it does not overreach law's bounds.

 Portia’s and Nerissa’s tests of their husbands creates a strange test of binding contracts. For some reason the women feel the need to deceive their husbands in order to see how faithful they are in their oaths to their wives, even accusing them of cheating and pretending to have cheated on them. Gratiano exclaims, “Why, this is like the mending of highways / In summer, where the ways are fair enough. / What, are we cuckolds ere we have deserv’d it?” (5.1.263-265). And, truly, it does not seem that the men have deserved this treatment. Indeed, because Bassanio and Gratiano actually did give the rings to Portia and Nerissa respectively, they did remain within the bounds of their promises. The “heavy husband” of each woman is made light of (5.1.130).

Measurements, scales, and weights define the law and contracts with utmost precision. However, the very weight of these contracts are made lighter by the ways in which the characters push against boundaries to find room for love and mercy. 
ˡ My thanks to Dr. Allen for raising the question of binding contracts at Dr. Farabee’s Sept. 29, 2011 playreading.
2 These words concern Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, but in the same scene Shylock goes on to apply similar images of blood and flesh directed at Antonio and those who would wrong Jews.

Works Cited
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore Evans. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 288-317. Print.

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