Lawyers in Literature; Balthazar in The Merchant of Venice


Shakespeare knew a lot about life, and often captured the ideal of a thought in a speech, a sentence or sublimely using one word. He also knew a lot about human nature, and the fact that people often don't read the small print.

Edward Alcock's Portia and Shylock from circa 1778
In "The Merchant of Venice" a young Venetian, Bassanio, needs a loan and asks his friend, Antonio, for a loan. Antonio is short on cash himself because all his money is tied up in shipping, so until that comes in he can't help. He goes to the local moneylender, Shylock, who doesn't actually like Antonio because of the nasty things he's said and done to him for being Jewish.

Shylock agrees to the loan, but has a condition; the loan must be re-paid in 3 months time or he, Shylock, can have a pound weight of flesh off Antonio. Antonio, impatient for the cash, agrees because he knows his ship will come in, and he'll be safe.

It doesn't take a fool to see the hole in that argument. When the ships don't make shore, Shylock comes a hunting for the collateral on the loan. He takes Antonio to court where his lawyer, Balthazar, is actually the heiress, Portia, in disguise. She's engaged to be married to Bassanio who borrowed the money to woo her and she has come to help out her intended, his foolish friend and to protect the world from a bitter and twisted Shylock.

The character of Portia and, by extension, her alter ego Balthazar, is one of the best female roles in Shakespeare. She is clever, gracious, witty and independent. She knows whom she would like to marry and she trusts him to decide correctly. As Balthazar, she appeals to the better nature of Shylock in one of the most famous speeches made by a woman in all Shakespeare, "The Quality of Mercy is not strained..." When Shylock remains resolute (in mitigation, he has put up with a lot of name calling and antisemitic behaviour), she looks at the fine type, and finds the loophole in the contract. Shylock had asked for a pound of flesh, no more, no less.... but forgotten to ask for the blood that would, of course, have to be spilled alongside it.

Portia is not by training a lawyer, but uses the law to get what she wants. She works on technicalities and gets Antonio out of the contract because she can use the law to suit. She uses both the spirit and the letter of the law well. No wonder many famous actresses have wanted to play her, or that the New England Law School which was all-female when it opened, chose to be called the Portia School of Law until 1969.

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