Act IV, scene 1 of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice takes place in a courtroom. Antonio, our relatively nondescript title character, cannot afford to pay back the loan he took from Shylock, and Shylock is asking the Duke to honor their contract, which grants him a pound of Antonio’s flesh in the event of forfeiture. Portia, acting as Antonio’s lawyer for complicated reasons regarding the play’s love-plot, grants Shylock’s legal right to the flesh but asks him to forego his claim in the name of mercy. It’s a famous speech: Portia opposes divine mercy, something like grace, to temporal justice, urging Shylock to consider “That, in the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation” (IV.1.197-8). We’re all sinners, in other words, redeemed only by God’s mercy -- so isn’t it our duty to show mercy and forgiveness to our fellow men?
A fine, poetic speech, 22 lines long, full of lovely metaphors and rhetorical paradoxes. Shylock’s response is curt -- two lines, two sentences -- and much less often quoted, yet has always stuck in my head with particular force:
“My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond” (IV.1.204-5, emphasis added).
Shylock’s position in this scene is easy to read as cold and cruel -- and Portia isn’t wrong: he’s not being merciful, not showing any sympathy for Antonio as a person, not turning the other cheek. In the context of the play, this is meant to evoke a conventional contrast between Judaism and Christianity -- between the letter and the spirit of the law -- that Shakespeare sometimes reinforces and sometimes calls into question. Momentarily bracketing the political significance of this scene for Renaissance England, though, I want to use it as a jumping-off point for some reflections on the current situation of the justice system in America.
“I crave the law”: the phrase has always struck me for its surprising vulnerability and emotional urgency. We Americans -- we white Americans, for reasons that will become clear in a moment -- are used to thinking of the law much as Portia does: a dispassionate system that disregards personal attachments. We respect the law, we honor the law, we obey the law -- but crave it? This passionate yearning not only feels oddly mismatched with the dry legal code; it also seems to suggest that the speaker lacks the law, is somehow outside of or excluded from it. For us, by contrast, the law is as pervasive and life-giving as the air we breathe; we don’t need to crave it -- indeed, we barely need to think about it.
For us, the law is the air. But what about those Americans who, as we’ve been hearing with increasing urgency, can’t breathe? Though the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner caused intense pain and anger throughout the African-American community, there’s a reason, I think, that the protests began in full force only after grand juries failed to indict Brown’s and Garner’s murderers. White Americans, whose rights the law is built to safeguard, know that having laws does not mean that no crimes will ever be committed; it does not even mean that no criminals will ever go free. But we expect that those crimes will be acknowledged as crimes -- that the law will condemn those who break it, who break us. We expect, in other words, that in the event of a murder, the law will reassure us: “your life matters.” When Darren Wilson and Daniel Pantaleo were not put to a trial, the law spoke just as clearly to African-Americans: “your life doesn’t.” The distinction here is important: it’s not that Wilson and Pantaleo were found innocent of a crime. That verdict would have been wrong, but it would have been a verdict. What happened, instead, was that the law essentially declared: “the murder of African-Americans is not even a crime.”
There are surely some white Americans who actually agree with this sentiment, but I’m not speaking to them. I’m talking, instead, to those who agree that Wilson and Pantaleo should have been indicted, but are uncomfortable with the size, urgency, and radicalism of the demonstrations across the country. Or to those who feel that these cases are attributable to a relatively small number of racist cops rather than to a broken system. Or to those who have their doubts about the legality of Brown’s and Garner’s killings, but feel that if the victims broke the law too -- even the pettiest of laws -- it somehow evens out. To these white people, I say: I know where you are coming from. The law feels just to us; we are more inclined to believe that an individual has transgressed than that the law itself is blind to such a fundamental crime as the taking of human life. It’s truly scary to think that the law could be so unequally enforced and prosecuted, but it’s equally scary to contemplate systemic change to the justice system, because what will become of our safety -- white people’s safety, right now the supreme good acknowledged by the law?
And so some white people call for peace, restraint, quiet; we ask African-Americans to turn the other cheek, again; we ask them, in essence, to show us mercy. And here’s where Shakespeare comes in handy. He helps us see that only those who are already protected by the law can afford to show mercy. When the Jewish Shylock demands that the law be enforced equitably for all inhabitants of Venice, it is the Christians -- tacit beneficiaries of Venetian law -- who suddenly decide that law, after all, is not the most important thing; mercy is. In The Merchant of Venice, we feel this appeal for what it is: a bait-and-switch, a strategic attempt to shift the terms of a debate that Portia, on strictly legal grounds, would lose. Let’s be honest enough to recognize the same impulse in ourselves whenever we prioritize order over justice, when we try to transform righteous anger into subdued mourning. We, white Americans, are sheltered by the law, and can therefore imagine that we don’t need it, that it doesn’t play a crucial role in establishing our personhood and valuing our lives. People of color, and especially African-Americans, know better. Personhood is not a gift from God or an innate quality; it is a process of continual recognition and care on the part of the state, the community, and, not least, the law. African-Americans have long been excluded from this process. Go read articles by activists of color, and listen to their speeches, and attend their marches; they know best how we can help them achieve justice. And as you watch the demonstrations unfold, stronger and more insistent every day, remember that the protesters aren’t marching against the law, but in its name. They call upon it. They crave it.