Avid readers of Shakespeare might already have figured out the content of this narration from the title. For those who are still in the dark, The Merchant of Venice is a play written by William Shakespeare. One of the main points of scrutiny in this play is the court trial between Antonio and Shylock. During dire times, Antonio decides to borrow money from Shylock, a shrewd businessman. In jest, Shylock agrees to lend the money in exchange for a pound of flesh. Shylock and Antonio find themselves as adversaries in court after Shylock’s daughter runs away with his gold and Antonio loses all his investments due to the sinking of certain ships. The dilemma which arises is that Shylock now demands his pound of flesh but for Antonio it is literally a matter of life and death. If the pound of flesh is taken from close to his heart, he would most certainly die. What would the scenario be if the trial were held in courts today and followed current legal systems?
Firstly, there would not be a trial to speak of. According to section 2(g), 10, 23 and 24 of the Indian Contracts Act of 1872, no contract which includes considerations or objects unlawful in part can be made, and if made is null and void. This means that any contract which includes something against the law is irrelevant. In this case, Shylock’s request for a pound of flesh nearest to the heart would certainly result in Antonio’s death. This is unlawful as it is murder. Hence the contract made between Shylock and Antonio is void.
Let us consider another scenario where we assume that murder is legal (very extreme I know but bear with me)? In this situation too, the dilemma still remains unfeasible. This is because the contract between the two parties involved was extremely vague. Shylock only demanded a pound of flesh but there were no specific instructions about how to deal with the inevitable bleeding. This was ultimately his undoing in the play as well. According to Section 29 of the Indian contracts act, 1872, agreements, the meaning of which is not certain, or capable of being made certain, are void. Hence, since Shylock was not specific enough in this situation, the contract still isn’t feasible!
Let’s take it a step further. Consider that the contract made is legal and Shylock is able to extract his pound of flesh. In doing so there would be blood loss. In the 16thcentury, Christianity was widespread and Shylock would face grave consequences for spilling a Christian’s blood. Jewish Shylock would either have to convert to Christianity or face execution for committing a crime against religion. Thus, it is not a good deal for Shylock. According to Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code, crime against any religious entity is a punishable offence. From an economic perspective too, Shylock stands to lose! The Merchant of Venice was written during the 16thcentury, a time when slave trade was prevalent. British slaves were sold for a minimum of 16.5-pound sterling. Let us assume this as a proxy for human worth at that time. 3000 Ducats (the amount Antonio owed to Shylock) are worth about 330,850 pound-sterling today. Thus, if Shylock would have waited to get repaid instead of threatening to take Antonio’s life, he would have profited a lot more.
Hence, it is clear that Shylock did not think the contract through. He would not do well as a lawyer or an economist. His contract would not hold up in a court of law nor does it make economic sense. It is apparent that his loss was inevitable, though it made for good drama.