Essay on Comparing Justice in The Faerie Queen and Merchant of Venice

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The Nature of Justice in The Faerie Queen and The Merchant of Venice

      The tension implied in the insistence to bind the definitions of justice, mercy, and equity in Elizabethan texts suggests that behind their representation there is more at stake than a conceptual problem. Elizabethan conceptions of ideal justice politicize their representations in order to justify the prevailing monarchy. Spenser and Shakespeare offer their own version of the nature of justice through female characters, Mercilla in Book V of The Faerie Queen and Portia in The Merchant of Venice. However the textualization of these categories works differently. For Spenser, justice relates itself to a divine ordering of the world, which connects his work with Elizabeth I, God's instrument on Earth. In the case of MV, law in the form of contracts and bonds, substitutes any divine mediation in the legal process, thus displaying, even though briefly, the artificial nature of justice.


Various treaties of the sixteenth century distinguish between justice, equity and mercy or clemency. James E. Phillips summarizes the definitons of these concepts at the time: "Justice is the absolute, measure for measure equation of exact reward and punishment according to the letter of the law, Equity is the taking into account of the individual circumstances in each case and mercy or Clemency is the human and divine impulse to forgive." (Phillips, 105) In the case of the monarch, he/she could only show mercy if the offence directly affected his/her person and once the offender confessed and pleaded for mercy.


Mercilla and Portia problematize the boundaries of these definitions. In the Proem to Book V of The Faerie Queen Spenser establishes his defi...

... middle of paper ... in the play) to function as the spokesperson for the law suggests that rather than an attack on the female sex, The Merchant of Venice subtly questions patriarchal assumptions about women.


Works Cited


Aptekar, Jane. Icons of Justice. New York & London: Columbia University Press, 1969.

Benston, Alice N. "Portia, the Law, and the Tripartite Structure of The Marchant of Venice." "The Merchant of Venice". Critical Essays.

Ed.Thomas Wheeler. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1991.

Phillips, James E. "Renaissance Concepts of Justice and the Structure of The Faerie Queen, Book V," HLQ, (Feb. 1970), 33, 103-120.

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1897.

Stump, Donald V. "Isis versus Mercilla: The Aleegorical Shrines in Spenser's Legend of Justice." Spenser Studies , (1982), 3, 87-98.


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