Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Ethical Dilemma

While reading Act IV I found myself in the middle of an ethical quandary regarding the events surrounding Shylock's collection of his bond

In Act IV, Shylock is waiting for the go-ahead from the Duke to collect his bond of a pound of flesh from Antonio while many others stand audience pleading with Shylock to have mercy and instead accept monetary compensation.

Here is where things get blurred into a moral grey area and I am forced to question who is right and who is wrong here. In the beginning, the Duke suggests that Shylock take some small bit of on mercy on Antonio and reduce his debt. Shylock refuses, stating that if he were to change the terms of their agreement now, it would undermine the value of a written bond and the city's legal system as a whole. Antonio sees no point in reasoning with Shylock calling him hard-hearted. Shylock turns down Bassanio's offer of six thousand ducats and answers the Duke's question of how Shylock expects to receive any mercy when he himself shows none by asking, "What judgement shall I dread, doing no wrong?" (4.1.88) Shylock makes a valid point here: He is acting within the boundaries of the law in collecting on a contract whose terms both parties have agreed on. Sure, that's all fine, but one must consider the debt to be collected: human flesh. This makes things a little confusing. Is Shylock being reasonable here or does he develop a crazy blood-lust in refusing an arguably more reasonable and beneficial settlement? Which is worse, breeching the terms of a binding contract or killing someone even if they did agree to those terms? I am not really sure where I fall in this debate. Certainly Shylock's original instance upon a pound of flesh as payment is questionable behavior, I would call it insane and murderous. But then what does that make Antonio to agree to such terms? Confident, sure, but definitely around the same level of crazy/ suicidal.

I think that for Shylock, this is more personal than anything. It's about getting revenge on someone who has tormented him and made his life more difficult. That is understandable, but I think that Shylock kind of goes a little off the deep end here.

Now as the Act goes on, more developments occur in this case. Portia arrives disguised as a judge and brings a lot of legal savvy to the situation. Portia points out that the threatening of another's life is to be paid with one's own life. After this is confirmed, Antonio comes in and suggests some terms for settlement: that Skylock promises half of his goods to Lorenzo and, most upsettingly, that he convert to Christianity. This was an absolute shock to me. I can understand the surrender of his goods and money, but to change his religion is an extremely low-blow. After this happens, Shylock is clearly destroyed, his debt was lost and his life as he has known it is over, effectively killing who is.

This is a tough call as to who is right and who is wrong here. Shylock is attempting to collect his debt for Antonio's flesh, is interrupted, and in the end has to relinquish half of his goods and change his religion. Shylock may be wrong for wanting flesh and having a blood-lust but everyone else may be wrong for destroying his contract and making him change his religion. Personally, I think Shylock went too far in his original terms but also that Antonio was cruel towards him for no reason. If Antonio weren't so bigoted this whole thing might have been avoided.


Jade Asta said...

It is difficult not to think that Shylock’s lust for Antonio’s flesh as unsettling and inhumane; he is eager to claim his bond, take his revenge, even and especially knowing that it means taking Antonio’s life. But, you brought up that Antonio was the one to agree to the bond in the first place. Why would anyone agree to a bond like that? I think the only thing that feeds Antonio’s actions is his arrogance. When Bassanio tells Antonio not to take the bond, Antonio is quick to assure him that there is nothing to fear, he expects the return “of thrice three times the value of this bond” (I.iii.159). Antonio is no doubt blinded by his arrogance and pride because he willingly takes on a bond when he has no actual assurances that he will actually be able to keep it, so confident is he that his ships will not fail him.

Brittany M said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brittany M said...

Where I can see the controversial nature of Shylock’s behavior, I also see why Shylock refused to relinquish the agreement. We are told that Antonio has mistreated Shylock many times, which led Shylock to harbor vengeful feelings toward Antonio. Antonio admits that he has treated Shylock badly and agrees that he would continue to do so, and yet he still goes to Shylock asking for a loan. That was his first mistake. Second, his arrogance (as you mentioned) made him believe that he was invulnerable to any misfortune. The life a merchant is nothing but risk taking, so he was foolish to think he was immune. This was his second mistake. Antonio pretty much sealed his own fate. So my conclusion is that I don’t see Shylock as a bloodthirsty character in so much as I see him as a man who has been knocked down relentlessly and is looking for the ultimate way to get even. I think Shylock is the most human-like character in the play (especially upon reading his profound speech) who has been wronged one too many times.

Kelly Prendergast said...

I think that you make a really interesting point about Antonio's role in this deal. He makes a bet he can't pay, and then expects the court to find in his favor. I think while Shylock is a little merciless and inhumane, he is claiming what is rightfully he is. He respects the bond, and when Portia points out his oversight, that the bond does not allow him to claim Antonio's flesh, he simply states, "I cannot find it; 'tis not in the bond." He respects the arrangement enough not only to go through with it, but also to respect it when it is not in his favor. I understand your moral dilemma, but for me, Shylock is treated awfully, and this is his first ever chance to hold power over Antonio. I think he's completely justified- a little bloodthirsty, yes, but he wants to collect a debt owed. He is owed not only money, but also a chance at some form of power.