The Merchant of Venice-winner or loser?

The Merchant of Venice is another masterpiece where Shakespeare presents us with a variation on a fairytale situation that we are all familiar with, to expose our frailties as humans, to give us added insight and understanding.

Bassanio is in love with the great lady Portia, and needs funds to be in a position where he might win her for himself. He approaches his dear friend and mentor, Antonio, who has always been ready and willing to help him out in the past.

Antonio is used to a position of authority and respect in society. He knows that Bassiano looks up to him, and it is important to him to help him out. His capital is currently tied up but will soon be free. He suggests that he will provide surety for the funds to be borrowed from Shylock the money lender.

Shylock has heard what Antonio says of him and his colleagues-how he despises them and what they do, calling them names and treating them poorly. He is amazed that he now turns to him for help, and his first reaction is to refuse to have anything to do with him. Bassiano and Antonio seek to persuade him, and he realizes that this might be the opportunity he is looking for. This might be a way to show Antonio that he is no better, and that the tables might be turned.

The deal is struck, the money changes hands and the surety demanded by Shylock is one pound of Antonio’s flesh, if he cannot repay the loan by the due date.

Bassiano uses the money and wins the fair Portia. He has to choose between three caskets. He wisely bypasses the gold and silver caskets on account of their external beauty, and by choosing the lead casket finds her picture inside and with it the right to claim her in marriage.

At this point Bassiano learns that Antonio’s money was not forthcoming and his bond to Shylock is forfeited. Portia gives him double the amount to repay the debt and he hurries back to Venice.

At court Shylock has seized the opportunity for revenge after all the past insults from Antonio. Brassiano seeks to pay him double the principle sum to resolve the matter. Shylock refuses and Antonio steps in and hurls more insults and threats in Shylock’s direction.

A mysterious lawyer appears, who is Portia in disguise. She uses her considerable skills to persuade Shylock of the advantages of being merciful, but Shylock is still seething from the taunts from Antonio, and insists on his just deserts. The lawyer agrees, but says that he is cannot carry out his side of the bargain exactly then he will forfeit his assets and his religion –everything that has value for him.

Shylock is determined, so arrangements are made, at which time it is made clear that the terms of the deed provide that he can extract one pound of flesh from Antonio, but not one drop of blood. He is defeated and his whole world collapses.

Shylock sees himself as a victim. The unfairness of Antonio’s attitude towards him results in his preoccupation with the injustice of the situation and need for revenge. He comes to believe that it is only this revenge that can give him satisfaction and relief from the justice of it all! He wanted to be treated fairly and kindly by Antonio, respected as another human being with the same needs and wants. They both need to earn a living but do so in different ways, one not better than the other, but just what wans within their personal circumstances and abilities. He wanted to be defined by the similarities between them and not the differences.

Antonio, he saw as the perpetrator. He, who had the confidence and resources to be generous and magnanimous when he wished. He, who could earn the respect of others by lending them funds at no interest, because he had the choice to be able to do so. He, who could belittle, taunt, and abuse, without consequence from those around him. The injustice of it was about more than Shylock could cope with!

Antonio was arrogant and selfish. He saw himself as a self made man, and as such with authority to treat others as he chose. He did not put himself in the shoes of others and appreciate the impact of his behavior. He could not do this, and did not want to! There were very few around him who limited his sense of self, and those were quickly disregarded and dismissed.

Portia was the hero! She came to the rescue offering hope for a better future, and when this was not possible providing a resolution for all involved. She appealed to Shylock’s compassion and humanity-what he felt had been overlooked in Antonio’s treatment of him. But Shylock was so caught up in his need for revenge that he could not grasp this olive branch and achieve a good outcome for all. His insistence on his view of justice, resulted in justice, but a different view of this that saw him not as gaining but losing all.

For me as a dispute resolver, the message from this play is perhaps the most profound of all those I have seen in the past few years! The issues that soundly loudly for me include:
• The results of treating those around you, no matter where they come from, with less humanity that you expect for yourself. I am mindful of the refugees locked up in detention.
• The destructive nature of revenge and how blind this can make you to opportunities for growth and development.
• How the blind faith in justice, and fighting for a principal, can be so costly.
• The importance of role modeling in any community, the responsibility that goes with this, and the impact on those around you.
• The power of mercy and compassion. If we expect to receive this at any time in our lives, we should expect to show it every day. It reminds me of old saying-do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
• The gift of a good facilitator. Any dispute can benefit from the skills and experience of someone who is impartial and independent and can provide objectivity and guidance.
• The advantage of interests based bargaining, where you explore underlying needs and interests, to provide a platform for all parties to a dispute to achieve something of what they want.

In many ways this was a very sad tale. I would like to think that if I could of spent some time with Shylock and Antonio in an Intake Session and a Conflict Coaching session for preparation, that I would have had a good chance to unlock those common needs and interests they both had, and achieved an outcome that they could both have lived with. I can imagine if they were able to put themselves in the shoes of the other, that they could have come to considerable common ground that would have enabled them to appreciate the strengths of the other, to be mindful of their weaknesses, and find a way to live together in harmony!

I would love to share your thoughts. Please contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions to begin a conversation.

More resources