In honor of National Poetry Month and the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, today’s Pic of the Week takes a look at a bas-relief that adorns the Folger Shakespeare Library (which is just a few steps away from the Library of Congress buildings).The bas-relief shows the court scene from The Merchant of Venice (Act 4, Scene I). Portia, the play’s heroine, is disguised as a lawyer’s apprentice and stands at court to settle a claim brought by Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, against Antonio, a Christian merchant, who could not fulfill their contract. In the relief, Portia stands with her hands on the two litigants – Shylock on the left, Antonio on the right. Behind Shylock is the judge, and behind Antonio is Bassanio, who is newly married to Portia. Portia stands upon two law books (which we do not recommend doing with law collections, in general). A globe on the right sits under the two Venetian friends.
Portia grasps in her left hand the contract (“bond”) in question. Shylock holds a knife in his right hand, ready to cut Antonio’s “pound of flesh” that is due him. Antonio’s left hand is clenched as if ready for a fight.
I pray you, let me look upon the bond.
Here ’tis, most reverend doctor, here it is.
Shylock, there’s thrice thy money offer’d thee.
An oath, an oath, I have an oath in heaven:
Shall I lay perjury upon my soul?
No, not for Venice.
Why, this bond is forfeit;
And lawfully by this the Jew may claim
A pound of flesh, to be by him cut off
Nearest the merchant’s heart. Be merciful:
Take thrice thy money; bid me tear the bond.
Portia finds a loophole in the contract and convinces Shylock that he can have his due revenge, if he can take no more than exactly one pound of flesh and do so bloodlessly. She tells Shylock that the penalty, under Venetian law, for shedding blood is death and confiscation of his lands and property. Portia goes on to tell him that if a foreigner (in this case, Shylock) kills or attempts to kill a Venetian citizen (Antonio), the victim gets to claim half of the foreigner’s property, and the state claims the other half. Shylock is in a bind at this point.