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How can I relate the Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare to liberty and freedom rather than the normal themes of justice and mercy?


The Merchant of Venice is often discussed in terms of justice and mercy. As a thought experiment, let’s change our focus. What if we think about this play in terms of freedom and liberty? For example, consider the thoughts of Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk who was trained in (and deeply influenced by) medieval Catholic theology, and try to apply some of his ideas to Shakespeare’s play.

There is no need to agree with Merton, or to think his claims are the only possible ones. Instead, use a few of his ideas to think about Shakespeare’s play, and use Shakespeare’s play to think about a few of Merton’s ideas. Write a paper about what you discover, while, if possible, thinking about Shakespeare as a writer of scenes. Initiate your reflection around one or two statements (which you interrogate rather than merely accept) from Merton’s essay.


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One of the cornerstones of the idea of liberty and freedom, especially when viewed from a religious perspective like Thomas Merton’s, is the idea of free will.  Whether human beings truly have free will is a surprisingly divisive philosophical question that, by design, must consider questions like natural versus nurture, motivation, the influence of society on people, and even the nature of good and evil (O’Connor).  However, the idea of free will is central to Christianity and also to Merton’s explorations of liberty and freedom in a Christian context.

Using the concept of free will to explore the central bargain in The Merchant of Venice, Antonio’s promise to give Shylock a pound of flesh if he should fail to repay the 3000 ducets that he borrows, puts the bargain in a different light.  There is no question that there is not just an underlying conflict between Shylock and Antonio in the play, but also an underlying conflict between the Christian society represented by Antonio and Jews in the society as represented by Shylock.  In fact, some of the play’s most memorable moments highlight the fact that Jews are often treated as subhuman in the play, pointing out the anti-Semitism that was considered generally socially acceptable. 

One similarity between Jewish and Christian culture is the idea of free will.  Liberty and freedom, both predicated on this idea of free will, have to exist in order for Antonio and Shylock to enter into their bargain.  Whether the bargain is moral or immoral, then, should be immaterial. As agents with free will, both men should not only be capable of entering into an immoral bargain, but also responsible for the consequences of doing so.  In other words, no one forced Antonio to approach Shylock for a loan or to agree to Shylock’s unconscionable terms.  In fact, there is not even a question of duress; that a friend needed to borrow money in order to get married is not the type of outrageous circumstance that would bring freedom into question.  Therefore, Antonio being relieved of his obligations is not an example of justice, but a blow against freedom and liberty.

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Ang, D. (2011). Freedom in the Contemporary Church — the Challenge of Thomas Merton. The Furrow, 62(9), 482-491. Retrieved December 9, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/23046385

O'Connor, Timothy and Christopher Franklin, "Free Will", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2020 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/freewill/

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