Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Quality of Mercy": Law, Equity and Ideology in the Merchant of Venice

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"The Quality of Mercy": Law, Equity and Ideology in the Merchant of Venice

Article excerpt

The interdisciplinary study of literature has received considerable impetus over the last two decades from the rise of New Historicism. Particularly in Renaissance studies, the work of Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Adrian Montrose and others has illuminated the relation of such diverse matters as exorcism, colonialism, architectural design and primogeniture to the cultural work performed by literary texts. One subject largely neglected by the New Historicists, however, is the law. This neglect may in part be attributable to the prominence of the law in older, positivist historical readings of Renaissance literature, and in turn to the New Historicists' desire both to distance themselves from this reflectionist model and to investigate unexplored areas of Renaissance culture. In any case, by conjoining the considerable work done by Renaissance legal scholars with New Historicism's characteristic questions--what are the sociopolitical functions of the cultural phenomenon in question, and how are those functions employed or adapted through the literary text--we may shed considerable light on both the law and the literature of the Renaissance.

Not surprisingly, given its explicitly economic central conflict and its intricately detailed legal climax, The Merchant of Venice has had considerable appeal for interdisciplinary critics. As O. Hood Phillips's investigations have shown, for over a century legal scholars and historians have studied the trial scene's relation to contemporary jurisprudence, debating its verisimilitude and its position in the period's jurisdictional and philosophical disputes, especially the conflict between the common law and equity (91-118). More recently, historical critics like Walter Cohen, Leonard Tennenhouse and Thomas Moisan have explored the play's relation to Renaissance social and economic history and ideology, and particularly its role in the period's transition from the cultural and financial structures of late feudalism to those of early capitalism. These two lines of inquiry have, however, remained almost entirely separate: legal readings of the trial scene tend to treat its legal significance in both cultural and textual isolation, failing to link it to the social and economic issues prominent in both text and cultural context; and socioeconomic readings of the play as a whole give little or no attention to the role of the trial's legal background in that framework.

A contemporary audience, however, would have made no such separation. The late 16th and early 17th centuries in England were notable both for unprecedented economic and social change and for a marked increase in legal activity; the connection between the two developments was sufficiently clear at the time that Francis Bacon could note almost as a commonplace that "times of peace, for the most part drawing with them abundance of wealth, and finenesse of cunning, doe draw also in further consequence multitudes of suits, and controversies...[which] do more instantly sollicite for the amendment of lawes, to restraine and represse them" ("Epistle Dedicatorie," n.p.).

Nor were such associations beyond the bounds of the theater. In the case of The Merchant of Venice, the susceptibility of the play's legal content to sociopolitical interpretation is attested to by no less a legal and political authority than Lord Chancellor Ellesmere, who in a 1615 judicial dispute over the power of King James to legislate economic policy without the concurrence of Parliament advised his fellow judges "to maintain the power and prerogative of the King; and in cases in which there is no authority and precedent, to leave it to the King to order it according to his wisdom and the good of his subjects, for otherwise the King would be no more than the Duke of Venice" (qtd. in Andrews 41). The significance of the reference--to the Duke's legal inability to act on his sympathy for Antonio--would not have been lost on James and his court, for whom The Merchant of Venice was performed twice in 1605 (Knight 108n8). …

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