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Shylock Goes Free, as RBG Overrules Shakespeare

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

It has taken more than four hundred years, but Shylock has finally been vindicated on appeal. The fictional Jewish moneylender, made famous in Shakespeare's 'The Merchant of Venice,' won a mock appeal presided over by Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently. Justice Ginsburg, joined by international lawyers, found that Shylock was entitled to the money he had lent Antonio, the titular merchant, and retroactively nullified Shylock's forced conversion.

The mock trial took place as part of events marking the 500th anniversary of Venice's Jewish ghetto and the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

If You Rule Against Me, Do I Not Appeal?

If it's been a minute since you brushed up on your Shakespeare, here's a quick refresher. Shylock, in the "Merchant of Venice," agrees to make a loan to the anti-Semitic merchant Antonio. The loan is to be secured by a pound of flesh, which Shylock will cut from Antonio should he be unable to repay.

Shylock is a complicated, controversial character, whose nature and treatment have long been debated by scholars, thespians, and bloggers alike. Nowhere is this more evident than in his famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech. Shylock begins by extolling the common humanity of Jew and Christian, asking "if you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" But he concludes by declaring his intention to outdo the cruelty Christians have shown him. "The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction," he declares.

Shakespeare's Sentence, Appealed

Of course, Antonio's scheme fails, and Shylock comes to collect. In one of Shakespeare's most legally-themed works, Shylock is denied his pound of flesh, in a trial presided over by the play's heroine, Portia, disguised as both a man and a lawyer. Portia rules that Shylock had conspired against Antonio and finds that, should even a drop of Antonio's blood spill, Shylock will be guilty of murder. Shylock is forced to give half of his property to Antonio, who requires that Shylock convert to Christianity instead.

However, last week Shylock had the opportunity to appeal the sentence Shakespeare wrote for him. For two hours last Wednesday, Justice Ginsburg and other attorneys heard arguments in Shylock's appeal, under the Renaissance masterworks adorning the ceiling of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice.

The verdict: Shylock was entitled to the money he loaned Antonio and his forced conversion was nullified, according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency. As for the pound of flesh, Justice Ginsburg found a way around that clause, the New York Times reports. "We agree it was a merry sport, and no court would enforce it," she said.

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