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Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Dear all,
tomorrow and the day after tomorrow we are going finally to focus on one of the cornerstones of the Law & Literature studies: Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice". Our approach will be a Law IN Literature one, with particular reference to the limits of the liberty of contract and the relationship between law and equity. Tomorrow we will mainly read the text together (after having organized the Midterm exam) and on Friday we will deepen the above mentioned topics. If you can, just have a look at the plot in order to better understand the play. For Friday, I expect you to read Kornstein's article.

- The Merchant of Venice, Act IV
D.J. Kornstein, Fie Upon your Law!, in “Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature”, 5.1 (1993): A Symposium Issue on “The Merchant of Venice”, pp. 35-56

Stefania Gialdroni's CV:
Stefania Gialdroni holds a PhD in legal history both from the University of Milano-Bicocca and the EHESS in Paris. She took part to the “European Doctorate in history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy of legal cultures in Europe” from 2009 to 2011. After one year spent at the London School of Economics, she spent the second and third year of the European Doctorate at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris. She received several scholarships from the Max-Planck Institut für europäische Rechtsgeschichte in Frankfurt am Main, where she attended the International Max-Planck Research School for Comparative Legal History. She has been organizing the Law & the Humanities course at the Roma3 Univerity under the direction of prof. Emanuele Conte since 2008. In 2003 she graduated from the University of Rome Tre, Law Faculty.
In 2011 she published the book: "East India Company. Una storia giuridica (1600-1708), Bologna: Il Mulino.


  1. As we spoke about anti-semitism in Dante, Shakespeare in this work chooses as the "bad" one of the comedy the rich Jew Shylock, who is also an usury, full of hate and revenge against Christians, so that also Nazi's propaganda used this work for their goal. However I read the book and it is Shylock that pronounces a very "modern" speech, saying that at the end we have all the same feelings and instincts, also negative ones.

    "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs,
    dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with
    the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
    to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means,
    warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer
    as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
    If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us,
    do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
    If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
    If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility?
    Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his
    sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge.
    The villainy you teach me, I will execute,
    and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction"
    (Act III, scene I)

  2. I'm agree with you Grazia, and i think that Shakespeare doesn't make of Shylock a true negative character.His cruelty is doughter of cruelty, he is a character very "human", in the general sense of the word. The ending of the story is ambiguous, it's too easy to speak about this opera like a commedy, and we have the same problem with Dante too!

  3. I think both two opinions here above are quite correct, even if, at a first sight, the character of Jew really looks as the bad character of the whole play. However, this seems to be the most followed opinion also in the most part of scholars. Simply, Shakespeare, to express many bad feelings in the human soul, chose the (maybe) best figure he could choose to express them, according to the mentality of that age: a Jew (it’s notorious almost to all that a great part of Jews was usurer in the past and, also because of that, they were seen by christians with “suspicious eyes”, so they traditionally stood for negative figures in the ancient christian world). Answering to Lorenzo: I think you can’t put Merchant of Venice and Divine Comedy on the same plan: the first one is a real comedy, because was written as a comedy and for being a comedy, while in Dante’s masterpiece the only sign of comedy is in the title.

  4. In my opinion we can not choose only a point of view. Shylock, I think,symbolizes law as a rigid rule, and I think that Shakespeare criticizes this approach to the law, in fact Porzia's ruling brings together equity and mercy with law.
    Here Shakespeare wolud like to demonstrate the necessity to use discretion in applying law to the concrete life.

    1. I don't think that Shakespeare himself was anti-semitic. We must remember that jews had been expelled from England three centuries before. Traditionally in the past when some one speaks about jews represents them with wickedness and greed. Maybe Shylock has something more: is too big and complex for the comic villain mold. Is a possible human being that claims to' be' treated like the others. Of course he can be' considered malign and murderous but we must remember that he after all desires exactly what was promised him.
      Thomas Moison argues that Shylock is a scapegoat who takes the blame for whatever is wrong with the economic system.

  5. As professor Steinberg underlined yesterday about Dante, even about Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice I think it is too restrictive to circumscribe it into limits of predeterminated "genera".
    Is it really important to know if Divinia Commedia is a commedìa or not? Does it have any sense to understand if Merchant of Venice is a comedy or a tragedy? I don't think so! In my own opinion, I consider an artist as such when he\she is able to overtake models imposed by traditional schemes, when he\she creates a new original and unconventional genre, in which traditional models are at the same time incomporated but also overcrossed, exactly as Dante and Shakespeare did in their works; that's why it's so difficult ( maybe impossible?) to find an appropriated predeterminated literary genre that can perfectly be applied to their works.

  6. I totally agree with Martina ! Why we have to found a "genera ?what i think is important in the Merchant of Venice is to express human feeling and human relationship in a giuridic contest like act IV in wich we can find law and the society law and character particular the Portia's character is very important and main, just because i believe she represent the justice but also injustice...who we have to condemn ? Shylock who desires exactly was promised in the contract or Antonio who asks Shylock something similar to death so what is right, to condamn Shylock,so the “law”, or Antonio,so the moral?!

  7. This cours is really intresting! When I red this play, i just red an intresting Shkespeare’s play. I cuold never imagin to be introduced to such as interesting interpretations, to so many way to read, to look at the text!
    When I red the IV act, I immediately thought that Shiloch was a really bad character (in throughout all the work is not presented as a positive character; when Jessica goes away with a cristian man that will became his husband, but especially with all his father’s money and her mother’s ring, in my opinion, Shilock seems to be much more warried for his fortune going away and for the religion of his son in law, than for his daughter desappeared); but after today’s class and after the interpretation that Gialdroni gave us, I can see that the Jew could be considered also as a victim.
    And beyond the fact that Porzia, that at the beginning asked him to use mercy to Antonio, and after she showed no mercy to him (she told him that, if he had spilled a drop of Antonio’s blood he will be convicted for Venice’s law and that anyway he will be convicted because he indirectly (or maybe directly!) attempted to a citizen’s life) so that she underline his condition of stranger and person that belong to a minority and not to the comunity, I think that this condition of victim for Shilock could be found also in the fact that Antonio asked the Ducke to condamn the Jew to convert himself to Christianity.
    Maybe my interpretation, my point of view is too much moder, but I think that condamn someone to change his religion is somenthing really really violent, in some way even more violent than a corporal punishment. Religion is something that belong to a very personal an intimate aspect of life, something that is supposed to be choosen in a very strongly felt, something that everyone must have the possibility to show proudly without any kind of judgment. And force someone to change it as a punishment make this someone a victim.
    Maybe at that time it was not so strange, but surely today if we look at this part of the condemnation, we can look at Shilock as a victim.
    Chiara Cencelli

  8. Today's lesson introduced some relevant issues: the eternal contrast between strictum jus and equity, the importance of finding a balance to avoid the great paradox of "applying the law without realising justice", and the history and essence of positive and natural law.
    I found an interesting connection with this thematic in the book "Lord of the flies" by Nobel Prize-winning William Golding. After a plane crash a group of children have to start a new life on an isolated island (this is a classical expedient used by the english narrative, from Robinson Crusoe to our dear Shakespeare and his play "the Tempest"). This seems to be the ideal situation to establish a social organization based on natural law. Infact at the beginning, the elected chief of the group, Ralph, tries to set up a democratic society, based on rationality, logic, civilization, and ordered by rules democratically voted. The ideal project is an organization where everyone give his own contribute for the "bene comune", in a cooperation finalized to the survival (ex: every child has to help to mantain a constant fire signal, so that if a ship comes near the island it may notice them). This initial period is characterized by a strong groupthink, where natural liberties are improved. The echoes of the Giusnaturalistic thought are clear. This original semblance of order quickly deteriorates, as the fears and insecurities of the individuals turn to a wild and aggressive instinct, which destroys every kind of collaboration and solidarity. So the central theme appears to be the contrast between civilization and the will to power, between rationality and law (in a large meaning) and primordial instinct. Here are two dialogues which can enlight this tension:
    1)"Le leggi!" gridò Ralph "tu non rispetti le leggi!"
    "A chi gliene importa?"
    "Ma le leggi sono l'unica cosa che abbiamo!" Ma Jack gli gridava, in piena rivolta: "Chi se ne frega delle leggi! Noi siamo forti.. siamo cacciatori! Se c'è una bestia, le daremo la caccia!"
    2)"Che cosa è meglio: essere una banda di neri dipinti come voi, o essere ragionevoli come Ralph? Che cosa è meglio: avere delle leggi e andare d'accordo, o andare a caccia e uccidere? Che cosa è meglio: la legge e la salvezza o la caccia e la barbarie?"
    Finally another passage catched my attention: it talks about equity and justice
    "Andrò da lui con questa conchiglia in mano. Guarda, gli dirò, tu sei più forte di me e non hai l'asma. Tu ci vedi, gli dirò, e con tutti e due gli occhi. Ma io non rivoglio indietro i miei occhiali per favore. Non ti chiedo di fare un bel gesto, gli dirò, nè di ridarmeli perchè sei forte, ma perchè quel ch'è giusto è giusto. Dammi gli occhiali, gli dirò.. tu devi darmeli!"
    Beatrice Stefanini

  9. An attentive reading of “Merchant of Venice” will inevitably lead to not too generous considerations on Portia's behalf, 'Portia the goddes of opportunism' as it was critically appointed by some. And deservedly so, if I can say. Doesn't she lure Shylock into believieng that , being the contract “fully enforceable at law”, the outcome of the trial will be in his favour and that he will gain that justice he so strenuously asks for? Doesn't she use law to her own advantage (and rightly so) and then shows none of that mercy Shylock was demanded of? But Shylock is no victim, in my eyes; yes he leaves the court stripped of his goods and faith, but he would have not shown any compassion either, if the trial's outcome had been different. Antonio would have died. Wouldn't Shylock have been able to give up revenge, he himself having suffered discrimination and scorn?

    P.s. I don't know if this is the right place to mention it, but our group (the last one) has chosen the “Law in Literature” topic for the mid term exam.

  10. When Stefania Gialdroni explained the medieval conception of the law I remembered two interesting books that I read in high school “dark fire” and “dissolution” written by c.j. Sansom. The main character is an hunchbacked lawyer Matthew Shardlake. The novels are set in England in the 16th century during the age of Thomas Cromwell. I think these crime novels represent very well the medieval society and the job of the lawyer.

  11. Hi everybody, I was reading through your comments and I really can’t understand why everyone tries to justify Shylock..he is the bad guy in the story. Of course, it implies no generalization on Jews, and recognizing it would not make anyone anti-semitic, except for the author himself, of course. However, Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism is really no big deal, he probably never even met a Jew in his life, and we should not forget that his story is not original, so if we are looking for someone to “blame”, it’s Sir Giovanni Fiorentino. He was the one who first wrote about the “Jew from Mestre” and we can’t deny that his demands were horrifying and his attitude really did not call for any sympathy. What I believe to be the truth is that back in those times Jews were depicted like that in the eyes of the public opinion. Shakespeare’s reading of Giovanni Fiorentino’s tale was no reason for him to investigate on the true nature of that people, he probably just believed what he read, and anti-Semitism was not a delicate matter at all in those times. So, I wouldn’t make of the Merchant of Venice the “manifesto” of Shakespeare’s anti-Semitism, nor I would condemn him for writing a story that had the sole purpose of entertainment at the time, although that story seems outrageous to us.
    What I think is really interesting in this play is how the author put into words the very conflict between strict law and equity that marks the difference and the incommunicability between the Jewish and the Christian mentality. I don’t know whether Shakespeare was aware of it, or if he meant for his play to have such a cultural meaning: the Jewish law is a strict law, Jews promise their god to honor their promise to him by letter, to follow his commandments and behave according to the ideal of the “Tzadik”,the “righteous man” and not of the “good” or the “merciful” man, as those are only god’s qualities. For Christians, instead, it’s men who have to be good and compassionate (not that Portia shows those qualities..). I don’t know if I managed to explain my point, but I was very surprised when I found these different philosophies reproduced in a play written by someone who is certainly not known for having studied the differences between the Christian and the Jewish law!

  12. I believe we should not analyze the appearances of a sterile debate on anti-semitism.
    I think this work in getting us in front of the deep contradictions of the human being, it contains something mysterious.
    Shylock is a figure undoubtedly fascinating, full of ambiguity: his uncompromising ethics doesn't know forgiveness or mediation. He condemns the partiality of the venetian law that is too flexible in his judgments and not very reliable. Law and clemency are not sufficient to placate him, but Portia finally finds a solution: she understands she can win on the jew's legitimate reasons using the law itself, with determination and without exceptions, by applying it to the letter and with dialectic skill.
    Carlo Alberto Norzi

  13. Dear students, I do appreciate your involvement in the debate, thank you! I don't have an answer to your questions and anyway I doubt there can be one. Certainly there were no Jews in 16th century England but they were usually portraied as bad guys. Jews were expelled in 1290 and readmitted only in 1655, and during this period of time a lot of myths circulated, such as the one about "ritual murder", which can be recognized also in Shakepseare's IV act of "The merchant of Venice". Considering the context, the fact that Shakespaere added a lot to Ser Giovanni Fiorentino's story and that there were no Jews in England at the end of the 16th century, I thin that the "Hath not a Jew eyes" speech is incredibly modern and moving. But this is only my opinion! Anyway, I agree with Carlo Alberto when he says that the play is about the contradictions of human beings in general more than on racist issues.

  14. I think the most interesting aspect of the IVth act is the relationship between contract law and state law.
    Portia initially applies only the contract, declaring that the penalty is due to Shylock since the contract has not been honored.
    When she realizes though that the contract didn't give Shylock the right to spill Antonio's blood, she then affirms the necessity of applying Venice's state law which punishes with death and the confiscation of goods anyone who attempts directly or indirectly the life of a venetian citizen.
    She solves in this way the trial in Antonio's favor.
    I think that more than a matter between law and equity, we have to concentrate here on the limits that contract law had even in a commercial state as Venice.
    Citzens with contract law had the possibility to freely regulate their interests but as soon as this revealed to be non exhaustive, the freedom of contract ceased and state law had to be applied.
    They only injustice I see in this trial is the doge's decision, on Antonio's request, of making Shylock change religion. This is due not to the application of state law but to the doge's political power in the venetian state.

  15. This might be a bit late – but incase someone looks in on this blog before the exam tomorrow … I have been looking with great interest at a point that not a lot of scholars seem to have highlighted (Kornstein looks briefly at it nearing the end of his essay). And that is the hypocrisy of Portia’s attitude towards mercy and sanctity of contract. Following her taunts in act IV against Shylock for the sanctity of an oath, she and Nerissa themselves takes great offense when Bassanio and Gratiano give away their rings:
    You were to blame- I must be plain with you –
    To part so slightly with you wife’s first gift,
    A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger,
    And so riveted with faith upon your flesh.

    I think rings are an incredibly important symbol in this play, and I think it would be fascinating to look at this in greater detail. Of course we see earlier Jessica exchanging her fathers ring for a monkey. This is a sign of the great disrespect she has towards her father. It is a pivotal point in the play as it is perhaps the impact of this personal portrayal that leads Shylock to follow his bond with such passion against Antonio.

    The Merchant of Venice has been incredibly enjoyable to study. The more I go over it, the more in awe I am at Shakespeare’s intense understanding of human nature. It is obvious from the wealth of scholarship that every aspect he investigates is still incredibly relevant in today’s society and indeed legal world. This shows how timeless his intelligence is and how much we can still learn from him. I think, therefore, that how far his play holds any factual basis, matters very little.

    Sophia Kisielewska