Another article on The Merchant of Venice? Richard Weisberg has thought the play capable of sustaining even such hyperbole as this: "Perhaps no text except the Bible and the United States Constitution has so implicated audiences in fierce struggles for dominance and control." Within the legal commentary alone, an entire law-and-literature symposium has been devoted to the play, while academics find the play appropriate as a paradigm for such disparate topics as international commerce, bribes, and gender bias in moot courts. Legal scholarship has paid the work perhaps its highest compliment in speculating that the play transcends the boundaries of "the literary" to have an effect on judicial outcomes. All these commentaries share the play's focus on Portia, its cross-dressing, silver-tongued, lawyering heroine. That Portia has become a paradigm for thinking about the way in which lawyers should act is underscored by the generic use of the word "Portia" to refer to a female lawyer, although the epithet has been used in both a negative and positive sense. Indeed, part of Portia's continued vitality may arise from the fact that encrypted within the strong consensus about her importance lies an equally intense disagreement about how her role is to be interpreted. When analyzed as a character, Portia has been called both the most and least attractive of the Shakespearean heroines.
Why is Portia such a crucial and overdetermined character for so many commentators, and for so many legal commentators in particular? Why has so much ink been spilled, with such vehemence and even vitriol, over what is in the end a fictive character in a play written in the late sixteenth century? My answer first invokes the framework outlined in Michael Walzer's Spheres of Justice. In that work, Walzer argues that (1) human activity is properly divided into distinct spheres (such as money, kinship, and work), and that much of what makes us define acts as improper arises from our perception that the integrity of a given sphere has been violated, (2) great power inheres in the role of defining the boundaries of the spheres, because the manner in which these boundaries are defined in turn determines whether an act is improper, and (3) we properly distrust those who occupy that role, because they have both motive and opportunity to deploy that power to their own advantage. I then argue that this framework, when applied to The Merchant of Venice, explains our obsession with Portia. First, I note that, as Alice Benston has indicated, the play presents itself as a parade of binaries - among others love/money; law/equity; appearance/reality; male/female; heterosexual/homosexual; alien/citizen; Jew/Christian; Venice/Belmont; cognition/paranoia; public/private - that may be seen as a sequence of paired and conflicting spheres of activity. Much of what makes The Merchant of Venice "the most scandalously problematic of Shakespeare's plays" rests on the violation of one of these spheres by a value that more properly belongs to the sphere to which it is contrasted. Second, by focusing on two of these binaries-money/love and law/equity - I show the great power that Portia wields in delineating the boundaries of these spheres. Indeed, it is only Portia's persuasiveness that preserves the play as a comedy for its main protagonists. Third, I argue that while we view Portia's virtuosity in defining these boundaries with admiration, we also view it with anxiety. We may challenge both the means she employs to draw these lines and the ultimate determination of where these lines lie.
"The Lawyer of Belmont,"
Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities: Vol. 9
, Article 4.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol9/iss1/4