16thC Italian Law and The Merchant of Venice
March 7, 2005 11:51 AM   Subscribe

I saw The Merchant of Venice over the weekend and have a question about the legality of Shylock's action. Since the question involves spoilers, it is inside one of these three caskets the thread.

In spite of the fact that Bassanio offers to pay double Antonio's debt to Shylock, Shylock refuses the payment and opts for his pound of flesh instead. WTF?? In modern society, if a debtor is able and willing to make the required payments, the creditor doesn't have the option to refuse the payment and collect the collateral instead. If I mortgage my house, the bank can't refuse to accept my timely payments and claim my house instead, just because it feels like refusing my payments. Did 16th Century Italian law actually allow this? Was it just an invention of Shakespeare's for dramatic purposes? Or am I missing some aspect of the case? Was it that the payment was late, which might be somewhat understandable? But I recall Shylock saying (at a point presumably before Antonio's three months were up) that he'd refuse Antonio's payment and take the pound of flesh instead, so that explanation doesn't seem to fit.
posted by DevilsAdvocate to Law & Government (6 answers total)
I think the more appropriate analogy would be the bank taking your house instead of going after your cosigner for the money.

I'm not sure if they're allowed to do that, either. I would imagine that it depends on how the contract is written, though.
posted by duck at 11:56 AM on March 7, 2005

I don' t know whether your particular point is covered, but Gross' _Shylock_ has somewhat about the legalities in the play.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 12:10 PM on March 7, 2005

Best answer: I don't know about 16th Century Italian law, but if I recall the film correctly, the Bond between Shylock and Antonio explicitly stated that if the loan was not repaid by a specific date, Antonio would owe Shylock his pound of flesh.

In your house example, it's as though the bank has already foreclosed on your house due to non-payment, and then suddenly you have the money to buy it outright. The bank, since they already own your old home, can refuse to sell if they want to.
posted by alan at 12:36 PM on March 7, 2005

Best answer: I think you're mistaken; it is reported by Jessica that she has heard her father say that he would rather have the pound of Antonio's flesh than the money he is owed, but not that he has that option. By the time Bassanio reaches Venice with payment, the period of the loan is already up - Portia says: "Why, this bond is forfeit" - and Shylock has the legal right to demand the collateral. Remember, the collateral is in lieu of interest and is the only penalty available for late payment.
posted by nicwolff at 12:43 PM on March 7, 2005

I haven't seen the film, but in the play at least, alan is right--the collateral is the pound of flesh. Shylock presents it as a joke--why would he want such a thing?--but we find out later that he would rather have revenge than the money.

This kindness will I show:
Go with me to a notary; seal me there
Your single bond, and--in a merry sport--
If you repay me not on such a day,
In such a place, such sum or sums as are
Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.

Content, in faith. I'll seal to such a bond,
And say there is much kindness in the Jew. (I.iii.141-151)

I suspect Shakespeare just made up the possibility of such a bond, or perhaps that it was possibly under Venician law only because it wasn't specifically prohibited.
posted by hippugeek at 5:59 PM on March 7, 2005

Response by poster: I think alan and nicwolff have it--I was confused, and Shylock doesn't have the option to refuse timely payment, if it were offered. It's that Antonio didn't pay on time.

Looking at the original play, I think I've found the source of my confusion. When I saw the movie, I was interpreting Act III, Scene ii (wherein Bassanio receives the letter from Antonio) as happening after Antonio learns that all his ships are lost, but before the actual deadline of the loan. See, I would have thought Antonio would have written to Bassanio as soon as he found out he was in trouble--about two months after the loan was made, since that was when he expected his ships to (literally!) come in, and thus a month before the loan came due.

That incorrect assumption, along with these lines of Salerio's:
Besides, it should appear, that if he [Antonio] had
The present money to discharge the Jew,
He [Shylock] would not take it.
led me to believe that Shylock had the option of refusing payment even if it were made on time and collecting the pound of flesh instead.

Reading it now, I see that that scene occurs after the deadline for repayment has already passed. Why Antonio would wait until that point to write Bassanio is unclear to me, but at least lending works the way I would expect it to.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:52 PM on March 7, 2005

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