On Wednesday, June 21st, the Law Library of Congress was pleased to host a mock appeal for the Shakespearean character, Shylock, from the Merchant of Venice. Our distinguished panel of judges included United States Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Associate Dean for International Affairs and Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law Professor Richard Schneider; Representative and Ambassador Connie Morella; Dean of Wake Forest University School of Law Suzanne Reynolds; and an Italian lawyer, who is working for the European Parliamentary Research Service, Micaela DelMonte. Michael Klotz, an associate attorney in the New York office of Jones Day, argued Shylock’s appeal; Teresa Miguel-Stearns, the Law Librarian and Professor of Law at Yale’s Lillian Goldman Law Library, represented Portia; and Eugene D. Gulland, a partner in the Washington-based law firm of Covington & Burling, represented Antonio.
Elizabeth Pugh, the General Counsel for the Library of Congress, opened the event with a quote from Portia on the quality of mercy. Elizabeth mentioned that this event was the last in a series of three Library of Congress events commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Jewish Ghetto of Venice. This event was the second time a mock appeal for Shylock has been staged. The first staged production was held last year in Venice.
David Dangoor, president of the American Sephardi Federation, discussed the importance of the Merchant of Venice in Jewish history, explaining that it reminds us of the plight of the Jewish people in Europe.
Michael Kahn, the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company of Washington, D.C. reviewed the plot of the Merchant of Venice. In the play, a young gentleman named Bassanio wanted to marry the wealthy heiress, Portia. In order to do this, Bassanio seeks a loan from his friend Antonio, a merchant. Antonio carries a deep affection for Bassanio, but his ships are at sea, so in order to make the loan, he turns to the Jewish money lender, Shylock. Shylock expresses his surprise at Antonio’s request due to Antonio’s past expressions of deep seated anti-Semitic beliefs. Nevertheless, Shylock agrees to the loan ostensibly as a gesture of reconciliation and friendship, but Shylock attaches a significant condition. If Antonio cannot repay the loan when it comes due, Shylock may extract from him a pound of flesh. Meanwhile, to Shylock’s great distress, his daughter converts and runs off with Lorenzo, a young Christian gentleman who is friends with Bassanio and Antonio. When the date for repayment arrives, Antonio finds that his ships are wrecked at sea. Shylock, enraged at the loss of his daughter, then seeks revenge by demanding a pound of flesh for Antonio’s default. The case is heard before the Duke of Venice and Shylock is offered both double and treble repayment of the money loaned, but he refuses and insists on getting his pound of flesh. The Duke refers the matter to a learned doctor of law, Portia disguised as a man. Portia determines that Shylock may have his pound of flesh, but that he can only do so if he can extract it without shedding any blood, because it is illegal to shed the blood of a Christian, so Shylock is denied his claim. Things take an even more grim turn for Shylock when it is decided that for conspiring to murder a Christian, Shylock is forced to surrender his estate, half to Venice and half to Antonio and is forced to convert to Christianity. Antonio agrees to return half of Shylock’s estate on the condition that it be given to his daughter, Jessica.
The accomplished actor, Edward Gero, introduced us to Shylock by providing a dramatic reading of Shylock’s response to Antonio’s request for a loan and his plea for justice at trial.
Justice Ginsburg then brought the court into session. Michael Klotz commenced his argument on behalf of Shylock. Michael did not request a pound of flesh, but to the amusement of the audience, requested that the principal of the loan be repaid, along several hundred years of prejudgment interest. Michael characterized Shylock’s earlier demand for a pound of flesh as an act of rebellion against the disparate treatment that Jews faced under 16th Century Venetian law. He also pointed out the hypocrisy of a wealthy gentleman, such as Antonio who made a living through the slave trade, balking at the idea that a contract could have a physical component associated with a default. Michael asked that the court vacate the decision below, that the principal be repaid with interest, and any further relief that the court may deem appropriate based on what Shylock and other Jewish residents of Venice have suffered.
Eugene D. Gulland then argued on behalf of Antonio, claiming that Michael presented a false narrative for Shylock. Eugene explained that Shylock lured Antonio into a bond with the knowledge that it would destroy him and that the record was replete with evidence of Shylock’s true motive for making the loan, revenge. Eugene claimed that Shylock knew that Antonio was a proud man, and he preyed upon this exaggerated sense of honor in making the loan with the knowledge that Antonio would not offer a defense in the event of default, and would offer himself up to be killed. Eugene conceded that Shylock was denied due process of law, but that the judgment of the lower court was essentially correct and the appellate panel should arrive at the same conclusion.
Finally, Teresa Miguel-Stearns presented the argument on behalf of Portia. Teresa stated that despite Portia’s disguise, she provided invaluable legal advice to the Duke of Venice in a commercial contract dispute that almost turned deadly, claiming that Portia’s skillful application of the law saved the lives of both Antonio and Shylock. Teresa resisted the description of Portia as a prosecutor, claiming that this was a civil forfeiture case and that Shylock was never at risk of losing his life in the instant case, which was strictly a civil matter. Teresa asked that Portia be discharged from the case and relieved of liability, explaining that her disguise was immaterial to the outcome of the case, and had Portia not intervened, Shylock would have killed Antonio and Shylock would have been subsequently executed for this crime. Teresa then asked the court to reverse the judgment that forced Shylock to convert to Christianity.
After Teresa closed her argument, Michael, Eugene, and Teresa commenced with rebuttal. Michael reiterated that Shylock would never have expected the bond to come due and that his motivation in making the contract was a rebellion against the disparate treatment of Jews under Venetian law. Eugene explained that Shylock’s essential motivation in making the loan to Antonio was revenge, and Teresa bolstered her argument that this was only a civil forfeiture matter, explaining that Portia was responsible for saving both men’s lives, and her disguise was immaterial to the outcome of the trial.
The judges then took a brief recess to deliberate. During the recess, Shakespearean scholar Dr. James Shapiro discussed various myths surrounding the Merchant of Venice and elaborated on Bassanio’s great affection for Antonio. Dr. Shapiro also discussed the history of productions of the Merchant of Venice, explaining that Shakespeare still has the ability to invite controversy.
Justice Ginsburg then brought the court back into session, praised the counsel for their skillful advocacy on behalf of their clients, and returned a verdict on behalf of the court. In the interest of not providing a spoiler, I won’t discuss the verdict, but you can view the court’s decision in the clip below at 2:09:00.
Elizabeth Pugh then closed the event and invited the attendees to a reception in the Great Hall of the Jefferson Building.
We would like to thank the American Sephardi Federation, Thomson Reuters, Ms. Roberta I. Shaffer, Mr. Robert S. Roth, Jr., and the Friends of the Law Library for their generous support, which made this event possible.