Shylock Was Robbed
By Bryan Caplan
The best way to experience Shakespeare is on t.v. with the English subtitles on. Read Shakespeare, and you miss the visual cues; watch it performed, and you can’t make out the words.
My latest foray into Shakespeare is the Al Pacino version of The Merchant of Venice. Days later, I still can’t get over the brazen legal sophistry used to cheat Shylock out of his pound of flesh. The “arguments” come down to:
1. Shylock’s contract was for a pound for flesh. Since it doesn’t mention blood, he has to somehow extract the flesh without spilling any blood.
This bond doth giue thee heere no iot of bloud, The words expresly are a pound of flesh: Then take thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh, But in the cutting it, if thou dost shed One drop of Christian bloud, thy lands and goods Are by the Lawes of Venice confiscate Vnto the state of Venice
You could just as well invalidate a contract to sell a house by saying that the air inside still belongs to the seller. “The words expresly are a house: Then take thy bound, take thou thy house, But in entering it, if thou dost breathe One breath of air…”
2. Shylock’s contract is for a pound of flesh. If he takes infinitesimally more or LESS (!), he’s guilty of murder.
Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh, Shed thou no bloud, nor cut thou lesse nor more But iust a pound of flesh: if thou tak’st more Or lesse then a iust pound, be it so much As makes it light or heauy in the substance, Or the deuision of the twentieth part Of one poore scruple, nay if the scale doe turne But in the estimation of a hayre, Thou diest, and all thy goods are confiscate
Imagine if we applied this approach to the sale of a pound of wheat: “if thou tak’st more Or lesse than a iust pound…”!
Oh, and then Shylock has to convert to Christianity to avoid execution.
You could say that everyone knows these legal arguments are nonsense, but in the age of the Chewbacca Defense, I have to wonder.