What I found most interesting in Act 4 was the portrayal of the importance of the law. Repeatedly Shakespeare seems to emphasize the importance of equality in the eyes of the law. The importance of maintaining the bond, despite its stipulations being extreme, are even realized and accepted by the person it will impact the most: Antonio. This is indicated in the following quote, “the Duke cannot deny the course of the law,/For the commodity that strangers have/With us in Venice, if it be denied,/Will much impeach the justice of the state.” (3.3.26-29). Antonio is commenting on the importance of equality in the eyes of the law. What he is saying is that if the Duke was to break this one bond, the upheaval that it could cause to the economic system of Venice could be catastrophic. The undertones of democracy and free enterprise in his statement are undeniable.
Shylock and Portia also both acknowledge these same points: that the bond must be upheld, and the law is to be held in utmost regard. Portia even states: “It must not be. There is no power in Venice/Can alter a decree established.” (4.1213-215). The importance of maintaining this bond may be the only thing that all of these characters seem to agree on. What is ironic about this situation is that the law that is supposed to be obeyed with reverence is the same law that Portia and the Duke use to bury Shylock in court later in the play. It is important to realize that although Shylock made a bond that some may view as unreasonable; it was still the bond that was agreed upon. It was entirely within the rights of Shylock to do so; he had committed no real crime in the eyes of the law. However, by exploiting a small loophole in the system Portia is able to take everything from Shylock.
What Shakespeare is doing is depicting the irony of the legal system. On one hand, the he is saying that the legal system must be upheld and respected, while on the other hand he is saying that this system is unbelievably flawed. He is making a point to demonstrate how the majority of people who know the law, are able to exploit it at the expense of others. Another point he is making, is that the legal system often hurts those that it is meant to protect: the minority. Also, throughout the play there is certainly an emphasis on how the minority is treated by the majority. Shylock is dehumanized throughout the play and by the end of the play Shylock is left without any of his identity left intact as a direct result of his Christian oppressors.
These concepts Shakespeare addresses remind me of the more contemporary issues of the treatment of Muslims in post 911 America. As Americans, there is very little distinction to the general public between the radical beliefs of the Taliban in comparison with the peaceful views of the average Muslim. This intense hatred towards all Muslims has calmed down in the past few years, but initially even your local gas station attendant who had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks, was villianized. Often many Muslims were harassed or judged by the Christian majority without ever even acknowledging that they were just living, breathing, human beings. This judgment is exactly what Shylock experiences in the play.