Our 12 Greatest Legal Plays: #1 The Merchant of Venice
#1 The Merchant of Venice
Aside from its underlying tone of anti-Semitism, The Merchant of Venice may well represent literature’s first true courtroom drama, not to mention its first female lawyer.
In Act 4, Scene 1, Portia presents herself dressed “like a doctor of laws” in an attempt to keep the money lender Shylock from extracting, quite literally, a “pound of flesh” from her husband’s friend Antonio as compensation for an unpaid debt. Like the great lawyer she is pretending to be, Portia pleas, then punches.
First, Shylock demands the grounds for any mercy, and Portia opines for the ages that “the quality of mercy is not strain’d, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven.” Then, after a fierce examination on the exact wording of the agreement, Portia finds a loophole and hammers it home.
Under the agreement, Shylock can have his pound of flesh; after all, it’s the law. But if blood is shed or other harm comes to Antonio because of Shylock’s peculiar compensation, Shylock stands to forfeit his fortune, or even his life. That, too, is the law. In this, the Bard has created an awesome bit of lawyering that has survived the centuries, notwithstanding Portia’s unlicensed practice.
NOTE: Shakespeare wrote the play in 1597. But he drew inspiration from Fiorentino’s Il Pecorone, published circa 1558, and the Gesta Romanorum, a collection of stories written in Latin mostly during the 14th century.