Conflicts of Law and Equity in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice
William Carlos Williams once said that "Shakespeare is the greatest university of them all" (qtd. in Kornstein xiii). This is especially true with respect to the law: a dedicated scholar can discover a wealth of information on legal issues in Shakespeare's works. Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice are, of course, explicitly "legal" in content, but more than twenty of the plays have some form of trial scene (Kornstein xii). Virtually all of the plays are tangentially concerned with some aspect of the law; at the very least, Shakespeare uses complex legal jargon to elicit a laugh. When one of the title characters in The Merry Wives of Windsor tosses out a line like:
If the devil have [Falstaff] not in fee simple [absolute possession], with fine and recovery [as of an entailment], he will never, I think, in the way of waste [despoiling], attempt us again (IV.ii.197-99, emph. added)
the law students who made up a large portion of his contemporary audience must have roared with laughter, even if few others got the joke.
It is therefore not surprising that the interdisciplinary study of law and Shakespeare has grown into a fully recognized field, with major law schools offering advanced degrees. Such interdisciplinary examination has opened for us a new vista of understanding. The Merchant of Venice "has spawned more commentary by lawyers than any other Shakespeare play" (Kornstein 66). One can easily find a discussion of every legal concept raised in the course of the play (White 111-46), a detailed legal dissection of the trial scene in Act IV (Keeton 132-50), and even an imaginary appellate strategy on behalf of Shylock (Kornstein 83-85).
The link between Shakespeare and the law is not new; even a casual perusal of the literature will show that scholars have long realized that the legal discourse can lead to a better understanding of Shakespeare's works. I submit, however, that the converse is also true: that 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...