onflicts of Law and Equity in 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 ...view middle of the document...
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 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 instinctively that some things are fair, some things are not, and our moral outrage is awakened when injustice is perpetrated.
It is this indignation, this sense that principles of fairness have been violated, that arouse many to question the theories and practices upon which our system of law and justice have been built. Some would claim, for example, that rape is a crime no less egregious than that of murder, and thus call for the execution of convicted rapists. Yet no state allows such execution solely for conviction of rape. It has become a fundamental tenet of American law that the state may not take the life of a felon unless the crime involved the taking of a life; rape alone, while devastating the life of the victim, does not result in death without some intervening act. The search for equity – for fairness – within codified law has led to some bizarre and arcane practices in Western courts; when drunk drivers spend more time in prison than some murderers, this fact becomes painfully apparent.
Equity, in fact, has become so intertwined with law in the justice system that it is difficult to see the lines of demarcation. We must remember, however, that such was not always the case. When Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, there were actually separate courts in England for the administration of law and equity. One appealed to the Court of Common Law to seek redress under codified law, or to the Court of Equity to avail oneself of the...