William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice addresses various legal issues and themes, with perhaps none being so pronounced as the struggle between formal positivism and natural law. Ostensibly, The Merchant of Venice dramatizes the dangers of rigid adherence to formalism and the triumph of natural law through Portia’s legal defeat of Shylock. On a more profound level, Shakespeare’s portrayal of the Venetian trial scene raises grave concerns about the essential nature and manner of that defeat. While Portia is originally positioned as a sympathetic proponent of natural law, she is soon revealed as one of its grossest violators. Thus, the play ultimately functions as a cautionary exposé on the hypocrisy of power, the abuse of fair process, and the grim reality that the law may be exploited to malicious and unnatural ends. This paper begins by addressing the philosophical foundations of natural law, and the profound influence that natural law bore on English Renaissance writers. This is necessary to frame the next section of the paper, which explores the tension between natural law and positive law in The Merchant of Venice. Here it is argued that Shakespeare’s portrayal of natural law in the Act IV trial scene operates as a dramatic reflection of the English legal system and its inherent failings. The paper also contends that The Merchant of Venice dramatizes the emerging conflict between equity and common law in Shakespeare’s England. The final section highlights various abuses of natural justice within the play as further violations of natural law. Ultimately, The Merchant of Venice calls upon the audience to “judge the judge.” By exposing grave deficiencies in the English legal system (as expressed through the fictional Venetian system), the play obliges the audience to make a critical moral judgment on the proper administration of justice. As this paper submits, the audience must reach a moral and rational conclusion in accordance with natural law.
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Josh Nisker, "The (Comic) Tragedy of Formalism in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice" (2006) 15 Dal J Leg Stud 257.