The link between Shakespeare and the law is not new; scholars have long realized that the legal discourse can lead to a better understanding of Shakespeare's works. Yet, that the converse is also true: the study of Shakespeare can lead to a deeper understanding of the fundamental nature of law. A play like The Merchant of Venice has a great deal to offer in the course of such a reading. The action of the play is concerned with contract law, but issues of standing, moiety, precedent, and conveyance are also raised. At the most fundamental level, though, the trial scene in Act IV illustrates the conflict between equity and the strict construction of the law.
Equity, in the legal sense, is "justice according to principles of fairness and not strictly according to formulated law" (Gilbert 103). This definition, while easily understandable, presents us with a problematic - even dangerous - structure of opposition. Law and fairness are set at extreme ends of some continuum of justice, and are exclusive. The definition implies that one can have justice according to "fairness," or justice according to "formulated law." Yet if law is not inherently fair, if there is need for a concept of equity, how can the law be said to be fulfilling its purpose? And if "fairness" is not to be found within the confines of "formulated law," from whence does it come? This is not a new argument, of course; the conflict between law and equity was recognized even in medieval England.
From earliest childhood, we are indoctrinated with a sense of justice, of fairness, of right and wrong. Every schoolyard echoes with cries of "No fair cheating!" We seem to know inst...
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Gilbert Law Dictionary. Chicago: Harcourt Brace, 1997.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Keeton, George W. Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1967.
Kornstein, Daniel J. Kill All the Lawyers?: Shakespeare's Legal Appeal. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994.
The Merchant of Venice. British Broadcasting Corp. Prod. Jonathan Miller. Dir. Jack Gold. Time-Life Video, 1980.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Bevington 178-215.
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Ward, Ian. Shakespeare and the Legal Imagination. Law in Context. London: Butterworths, 1999.
White, Edward J. Commentaries on the Law in Shakespeare. St. Louis: F.H. Thomas Law Book Co., 1911.
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