The Merchant of Venice and Critical Thinking

Was Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice making a critical decision that was necessary and proportionate, when he was demanding his pound of flesh?

Let me give you a brief rundown on how Shylock found himself in a position where he was able to demand a pound of flesh from the poor Antonio.

Shakespeare sets out his stall telling us how Bassanio wants money so he can impress his bride to be Portia (we will meet Portia later). Bassanio asks his friend Antonio to lend him the money, however all of his friend’s cash is invested in merchant ships. When his ships come in he will have a canny penny (that’s my Geordie twang not Shakespearian English!) and be able to lend Antonio the cash to impress Portia. Bassanio decides to lend money from Shylock for Antonio. Shylock sets up a contract with Antonio which states that if Antonio does not honour his debt, he will forfeit a pound of his flesh. A bit extreme however I doubt Shakespeare writings would have been so successful if the forfeit was he had to shave of his hair!!

Surprise of surprises he is told that the ships have sank. Antonio is unable to pay his dept to Shylock and Shylock has him arrested and takes him to court demanding his forfeit. Antonio’s friend offers to pay double his debt, however Shylock demands the forfeit to be met.

This sets everything up for a dramatic court room scene more dramatic than Judge Rinder. Let’s look at where Shylock may be, with his thinking. Shylock is Jewish and tells us of the discrimination he faces in his brilliant heart felt stanza

To bait fish withal;

if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. 

He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million,

laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains,

scorned my nation,

thwarted my bargains,

cooled my friends,

 heated mine enemies –

and what’s his reason? I am a Jew.

Hath not a Jew eyes?

Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?

Fed with the same food,

hurt with the same weapons,

subject to the same diseases,

healed by the same means,

warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is?

 If you prick us, do we not bleed?

If you tickle us, do we not laugh?

If you poison us, do we not die?

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.

 If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge.

If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example?

Why, revenge!

The villainy you teach me,

 I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

What we also learn is that Shylocks daughter has married a Christian and converted to Christianity. Shylock appears to be using his contract to seek justice and revenge for the racism he has been clearly subjected too, and with his daughter choosing to convert to Christianity he clearly feels that he has is justified to seek his revenge by demanding his pound of flesh.

So lets put this into some social work content, The Liberty Protection Safeguards have replaced DoLS and if as social workers we are planning on depriving a person of their liberty we now have a legal duty to ensure that the proposed deprivation is necessary and proportionate and this needs to be evidenced. Shylock is proposing a course of action by taking a pound of flesh from a person and we can understand his reasons for vengeance. He has clearly been a victim of racism and he has been treated horribly. Antonio entered into his contract willingly so should forsake his pound of flesh?

If we are planning to deprive a person of their liberty I do not think it is too much of a stretch to say the magnitude of a decision to place a person into care potentially against their will can be as dramatic and serious as Shylock’s decision to exercise his right to uphold Antonio to his contract.

Let’s apply the necessary and proportionate test to Shylocks decision to take a pound of flesh from Antonio. Firstly, is it necessary to? Questionably there is a legal contract that all parties willingly signed up to. Although we as readers would seriously question the necessity of placing a pound of our flesh as collateral to a financial loan. Now, like most, I am not a rich man and I have needed to rely on bank loans and overdrafts throughout my adult life, however I have never read the small print in the terms and conditions. I however do hope that a pound of my flesh was not used as collateral against any loan!

Was it necessary for Antonio to enter the loan, I would have said no. Let’s apply some critical thinking to this, clearly something that is lacking from the love struck Bassionio. What Antonio failed to recognise was that his thinking was heavily influenced by the matters of his friends heart, which blinded him into considering the risks into entering into this contact. If he had applied critical thinking, he would have calculated what the facts of the transactions were. Was the risk worth taking? Did he need to enter into the contract, and more critically how were his emotions impacting on his decision-making ability. How much was his desire to support his friend to marry Portia blinding his ability to critically evaluate the contract. And for our poor Shylock he is clearly influenced by the prejudice he has received, not to mention his perceptions of his abandonment from his daughter. Did he critically evaluate, ‘I have years of pent of vengeance brewing in my thoughts, so I need to be careful not to allow those into thinking when drawing up his contract’. I suspect not.

So, we can establish that the lack of critical thinking from all parties has resulted in a great difficulty in establishing if honouring the contract was necessary and proportionate. The legality of the contract was not in doubt here, however, if they did apply critical thinking at the time of drawing up the contract, we could seriously argue that the contract was not necessary and proportionate.

Firstly, he wanted the money for his friend who did not really need it. So, his loans were not necessary. Secondly, giving up his pound of flesh and potentially his life was not proportionate to him having extra cash for Bassiono to impress the lovely Portia.

Was the contract necessary and proportionate for poor Shylock? The short answer is no. He was hell bent on seeking his revenge and his revenge is something we can understand. It would appear this man was persecuted and subjected to horrendous racism, which resulted in him wanting his pound of flesh. Spoiler alert this became his downfall. If he had approached this contract and was aware of his own feelings and desires for justice, he could have reflected through this and applied a more sensible and less dramatic penalty for non-payment of debt.

So legally the pound of flesh is necessary as that was the terms of the contract, however is it proportionate? Again, although we would say that a pound of our flesh is not worth any financial gain, especially if we live in a time without anaesthetic and the removal of a pound of flesh would have a significant risk to life.

Let’s once again apply ‘necessary and proportionate’ to assessments in social work and in this context we are talking about a ‘contract’ which will deprive a person of their liberty. In order to avoid making emotional decisions as did Shylock and Antonio the social worker needs to navigate their way through emotions that could be just as powerful as Shylock and Antonio’s, such as family members strong opinion that there relative would be safer in care. This can be a powerful motivator and their views should and do influence the decision of the social worker, however, heed the warning from Shakespeare here. A family member who wants to place their relative into care, may have very emotive reasons for their decisions such as they believe it is the safest option for the person. Take a moment to think about that, if you believe that one of your loved ones is not safe and their life is at risk and you firmly believe that they would be safer in a care home your views and opinions will be very set and vigorous. They may believe the person cannot make the decision themselves and they may become angry at social services as they believe social services are more concerned about not making payments for residential care. It’s up to the social worker to critically analyse all the available data. This is not easy as not only is it right to gain the views of loved ones, there is also a legal obligation to do so if the person lacks capacity to make that decision themselves under the Mental Capacity Act. So how do we apply critical thinking here that would lead us to be able to apply a professional ‘necessary and proportionate’ assessment.

Firstly, the facts need to be established. What happened? When did it happen? What were the contributing factors? Secondly those facts need to be robustly questioned and picked apart to explore where is, and how we can gain, evidence. We then need to consider the persons views when we relay those facts to them as well as the options of their loved ones. So, at this point we have applied critical thinking and we have been able to establish opinions from facts. The social worker then needs to evaluate the evidence of the options available to the person, i.e. the risks and benefits associated with living in residential care, such as risks associated with living with others who are experiencing difficulties, risk of abuse, risk of falls, and risks associated with loosing your home and potential liberty. Once all this data has been critically collated it needs to be given in an unbiased way to the person that needs to make the decision. Which of course is not the family member but the person themselves.

If the person is not able to make a decision through lack of capacity, which needs to be established via a mental capacity assessment. Then the social worker, providing there is no lasting power of attorney, needs to make a best interest decision and a subsequent necessary and proportionate assessment.   First of all the social worker needs to establish if the deprivation is proportionate to the needs of the person and if it is proportionate, could these needs be met in a less restrictive way? Providing that due process has been carried out and the evidence has been critically evaluated then the assessment should not be too onerous.

If critical thinking has not been applied this area could be fraught as Shylocks and Antonio’s was and you could reach this stage in decision making with opinions and facts not appropriately established. What the social worker needs to be aware of is why the family member has their opinion, what the views are of the actual person and weigh these up against the evidence by carefully establishing what are facts and possible outcomes are. The danger with such emotive decisions is that the emotion takes over the critical thinking and a decision is made on a person’s liberty based on fear and not on evidence. The social worker needs also to reflect on what they are bringing to the table and what are their fears? What are there past experiences and how do they influence their ability to make a decision?

So what happened to poor Shylock? Unfortunately for him someone was applying some critical thinking and cast a critical eye over the contract and asked him to honour his contract and  ensure he produced a pound of flesh only. He could not take any more or any less and not spill a drop of blood. If he did not honour the contract in such a specific way his life would be forfeit, subsequently he could not do this as he would spill blood which was not in the contract. The process of taking his pound of flesh would result in the death of the defendant which was illegal in Venice and resulted in charges against Shylock. He was ordered to be a Christian!!! (I’m not sure how you can enforce that one) and share half of his wealth to Antonio and the other half to the state. His lack of critical thinking when drawing up the contract has truly bit him on his backside. Antonio had a somewhat happier ending and his ships had not sank and they had actually come in. Hurrah!

Such a tragedy for poor Shylock and a turn of luck for Antonio. And there lies the risk that is taken here, such important decisions that are made on the back of human emotions and not on critical thinking can lead to absolute disaster or triumph, and this is not the approach we should be taking when considering a depriving someone of their liberty. As the reality is, a wrong decision can contribute to a premature death of a person and the consequences could be far greater than those which Shylock was made to endure. Or they could result in a positive change in someone’s live, or more probable somewhere in between. What Shakespeare has showed us in his play The Merchant of Venice is it is the critical thinker that reduces the chance of an unhappy ending. As in this case the Doctor in Law was none other than Portia in disguise supporting Antonio. The fact that she committed fraud and claimed to be a Doctor in Law and a man seemed to go unnoticed by Shylock.

The key message here is to ensure that as a social worker you critically evaluate the information you have gathered and have sought evidence when it is required.

Jamie Scorer

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