True Nature of Justice in The Merchant of Venice Character Analysis

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The Merchant of Venice is a complex play that has many overtones interwoven throughout the play. One of the biggest overtones the reader must acknowledge in the play is the anti-Semitic nature of the text and this hate towards these Jewish characters. The Merchant of Venice is a most certainly the biggest display of this conflict occurs between Antonio and Shylock.

This conflict here provides the foundation for the development of many other conflicts. One of the biggest conflicts in the narrative is the struggle between justice and mercy. This struggle circles back to the religious aspect of the play and brings up the differences between the Old and New Testament. Should the characters follow the “eye for an eye” judicial system of the Old Testament or should Shylock do as Portia (disguised as a man of law) suggests and show mercy to Antonio by sparing his life, thus following the commands of the New Testament? The true nature of justice consists of knowing when to exact justice as demanded by law and when to show mercy or grace to those who have wronged you.

Moral justice supports different demands than legal justice does. Legally, the contract between Antonio and Shylock entitles Shylock to exactly one pound of flesh to be cut from Antonio’s skin. This contract is disputed which leads to a courthouse battle to interpret the contract and administer justice to whom it is due.

During this dispute, Shylock makes it apparent his distain for Antonio with several insults, “I hate him for he is a Christian; But more, for that in low simplicity He lends out money gratis, and brings down the rate of usance here with us in Venice. If I can catch him once upon the hip, I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him. He hates our sacred nation…” (Shylock, 1.3.39-45). After a short dialogue, Shylock shares a biblical story to explain the importance of contracts. Antonio refutes this by saying that “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose” (Antonio, 1.3.95). From a purely legal standpoint, this debate favors Shylock and the court expects Antonio to give his pound of flesh to Shylock. However, morally, most people would question whether the price of human flesh is justifiable.

Another moral issue is whether or not Shylock had a specific idea about what he was going to harvest the pound of flesh from in mind when the contract was signed. This contract is immoral due to the nature of it having placed a price on Antonio’s head and that Antonio was forced to sign it due to the circumstance of the destruction of his fleet of ships. In the end, after all has been discussed, it is moral justice that wins the court case when Antonio agrees to show mercy to Shylock after Portia successfully swings the case in his favor.

Religious bonds, family bonds, and commercial bonds all require different approaches to ensure they are fulfilled. The familial bonds of Shylock’s family are shot due to his greed of money. His daughter laments “Our house is hell” (Jessica, 2.3.2) and Shylock ignores her cry. He later continues to show is confidence in his daughter’s obedience when he gives her commands to secure his house (and, by extension, his money) from the world. Shylock also has dreams of moneybags (Shylock, 2.5.18) and when he later discovers his daughter has fled along with his money, he laments “My daughter! O my ducats! My daughter! Fled with a Christian!…” (Shylock, 2.8.15-16).

Shylock does not recognize his familial bonds due to his elevated importance to his bond of money. The commercial bond of the contract between Antonio and Shylock is treated similarly by Shylock. Shylock demands his exact payment and expects nothing less, no matter what the other person may need, much like he demanded his money be kept safe when his daughter needed his love. The demand of commercial bonds causes courtroom drama which spills into the religious bonds.

The merciful demands of Christian bonds clashes with the Jewish bonds which demand monetary justice. The opposition of these bonds leaves little wonder for why the two religious had conflicts within Venice. The religious bonds dictates how familial and commercial bonds will be treated. For Christians, these bonds mean following in Christ’s guidance and showing mercy to those who have wronged you, just like Antonio did to Shylock.

There are many forms of trials present in the Merchant of Venice and these trials give plenty of opportunities for mercy to be granted on others. One of these trials is very obviously the trial of Antonio and Shylock. Another trial is the trial of the casket. Yet another trial is the interrogations by Portia and Nerissa about where their husbands’ rings went. All of these trials are there to the nature of the involved parties. Portia is the wisest character. She as extensive knowledge about the law but she also knows a good deal about marriage. Throughout the play, she delivers several speeches, one of the most famous is her speech on mercy. Portia begins this speech with a powerful statement, “The quality of mercy is not strained” (Portia, 4.1.183). She continues this speech to say that mercy “is an attribute to God Himself” (Portia, 4.1.194). Portia likens mercy to God Himself because God is all merciful as revealed in the Scriptures.

When considering Shakespeare’s views on justice, the audience watching the play can learn a great deal from the events on stage. The follies and mistakes of Shylock can be lessons to others. The desire for personal revenge or personal advancement with money is not limited to just Shylock. It is a weakness found in every human being.

Exploiting other’s needs to further advance one’s own gains and later using one’s own position to exact rigid execution of the law and contracts will only lead one down a path of self-destruction as well as familial destruction. People like Shylock should strive for justice while also recognizing the need for mercy in the law. This realization of the mistakes of Shylock will prevent anyone from making these same mistakes in real life.


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True Nature of Justice in The Merchant of Venice Character Analysis. (2020, Sep 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/true-nature-of-justice-in-the-merchant-of-venice/



Does justice prevail in The Merchant of Venice?
Justice favours victors, not victims The key moments I'll reference include: Act 2 Scene 8: Salanio mocks Shylock's frustration over the loss of his daughter and money. Act 3 Scene 2: Bassanio picks the 'casket' that will win him Portia's hand in marriage.
Does Shylock receive justice?
No, Shylock does not receive justice. He is forced to convert to Christianity and give up all of his possessions.
How is justice shown in Merchant of Venice?
In the play, justice is shown when Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity and give up his wealth.
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