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Shylock on Rats and Rational Choice

Written less than a decade after Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice explores many of the same themes.
Shylock, unlike Marlowe’s Barabas, however, nearly gets the full extent of his revenge. The major difference affecting their fates is Venice’s maintenance of a reliable legal system. Through Ferneze’s tyranny, the governor makes it clear in Act 1 that Malta’s law is neither impartial nor universally applied, leaving Barabas no legal means through which to exact justice. This is not the case in Venice. In fact, Shylock builds his revenge plot around Venetian institutions to ensure it will be legally and economically just, as Antonio voluntarily consented to the contract’s legal terms when making his trade. Antonio, overly confident that his ships would come to port without incident, freely agrees to the unconventional (and life-threatening) arrangement and offers up a pound of his flesh as collateral without any deception on Shylock’s part. Regrettably, Antonio’s ships all miscarry, “[his] creditors grow cruel,” and Antonio is faced with his execution, “since in paying [the bond], it is impossible [he] should live” (3.2.314-17). Just when all hope seems lost, Portia steps on the scene in Act 4. Fortunately for Antonio, “the character whose actions” show the greatest mastery and exploitation of the play’s “pattern of credit and debit, payment and profit” and “homosocial exchange” is neither Antonio nor Shylock, but Portia (Engle 97). A model of Machiavellian pragmatism, Portia is not ruled by emotion, but by reason, In many ways Venice is the pinnacle of liberalism, and it is Shylock’s own choices throughout the play that eventually bring about his undoing. By the time Portia enters in Act 4 disguised as the young lawyer Balthazar, an incensed Shylock is insistent that the court uphold his contract entitling him to cut a pound of flesh from Antonio’s breast. The Duke all but demands that Shylock “not only loose the forfeiture, / But touch’d with human gentleness and love, / Forgive a moiety of the principal,” in light of Antonio’s recent losses (4.1.24-6). Shylock reminds the Duke that to deny him of his bond would invalidate the law and bring “danger . . . Upon [the Duke’s] charter and [his] city’s freedom!” (4.1.38-9). Act 4’s court scene is a master class in individual choice. In defense of the seemingly irrational “fashion of [his] malice,” Shylock responds:
You'll ask me why I rather choose to haveA weight of carrion flesh, than to receive
Three thousand ducats: I'll not answer that!
But say it is my humour,—is it answer'd?
What if my house be troubled with a rat,
And I be pleas’d to give ten thousand ducats
To have it ban’d? what, are you answer'd yet? . . . 
So can I give no reason, nor I will not,
More than a lodg’d hate, and a certain loathing . . . (4.1.40-60)
Shylock offers the Duke – and Shakespeare his audience – an early lesson in rational choice theory and the individual nature of tastes and preferences. “Shylock’s passion for vengeance at all costs” has not “cloud[ed] his judgment and ability to reckon” or made him “impenetrable to reason” as some critics have claimed (Korda 150). It has merely shifted his calculus and redefined what he deems valuable. While the economic term “tastes and preferences” is anachronistic, Shylock demonstrates that the utility-maximizing logic undergirding what he labels “likes and loathes” had already seeped into the early modern vocabulary. Shylock publicly recognizes the perceived irrationality of his choice to pursue a “losing suit,” acknowledging that if he wins “Shylock will lose three thousand ducats, receiving only a ‘weight of carrion flesh’” – which, to others, seems an inferior outcome (4.1.62n). It is not inferior to Shylock, who explains the subjective nature of rationality to the court. He argues that, hypothetically, if he wishes to pay 10,000 ducats to have a rat killed, it is his right to do so without questioning or explaining his exact motivation. It is simply according to his “humor” or “affections.” Some individuals would gladly pay 10,000 ducats to live rat-free, while others would be happier saving their money and either tolerating the mangy housemate or killing it themselves. The market for rat-baners allows individuals to make that decision based on their consumption preferences (their “likes or loathes”) and budget constraints – essentially, how they prefer to spend their money to bring them the most pleasure and least amount of discomfort possible (4.1.52). So should it be with other transactions, Shylock argues, including his preference for a pound of Antonio’s flesh over monetary compensation. Shylock’s reasoning, as he very clearly explains, is subjective and while it may be difficult for others to understand, it is not irrational. Unfortunately, Bassanio fails to grasp Shylock’s unique utility function and responds to Shylock’s lengthy diatribe by offering the Jew six thousand ducats. Shylock summarily refuses the sum, stating “If every ducat in six thousand ducats / Were in six parts, and every part a ducat, / I would not draw them, I would have my bond!” (4.1.85-7). Shylock could not be more disinterested in monetary compensation.
In an effort to bring Shylock to heel, the Duke asks “How shalt thou hope for mercy rend’ring none?” Shylock proceeds to tighten the noose of his legal loophole: “What judgement shall I dread doing no wrong?” He knows the law is on his side and reminds the court “If you deny me, fie upon your law! / There is no force in the decrees of Venice: / I stand for judgment,– answer, shall I have it?” (4.1.89-103). In a pivotal moment, Shylock asks the Duke if he will uphold Venice’s rule of law and preserve its free society. The Duke is backed into a corner and knows it. Unlike Marlowe’s tyrannical Ferneze, who casually breaks the law when it suits his political fancy, the Duke realizes that to deny Shylock justice would render the entire legal system corrupt and, therefore, meaningless.

As the nearly victorious Shylock is whetting his knife, Portia steps in, saving Antonio’s life and Venetian law in one fell swoop. The one casualty – and the hardest for critics and audiences to accept – is Shylock’s religion, as he is forced to convert to Christianity. Shylock, however, has slightly less trouble accepting his fate. When asked by the disguised Portia “Art thou contented Jew? What dost thou say?” Shylock responds “I am content.” Given that death is the alternative, it is difficult to call his decision freely made. In making it, however, Shylock accepts that living as a Christian is a better outcome for him given the gravity of his charges and, thus, he decides to content himself with a Christian life rather than no life.

As Adam Smith wrote over a century later, “Society may subsist, though not in the most comfortable state, without beneficence; but the prevalence of injustice must utterly destroy it” (TMS II.ii.3.3). Though everyone might not be perfectly happy at the end of Merchant, no one need die to restore order, which cannot be said for Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. In Merchant, instead of being imposed by a single authority, the outcome is generated organically by a legally constrained network of individuals who fit their actions to the those of other parties and are “rewarded, not according to the goodness or badness of [their] intentions, but solely on the basis of the value of the results to others” (Hayek 65). This, Shakespeare seems to suggest, is the hallmark of a free society. 
SOURCES:Engle, Lars. Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Hayek Friedrich A. Studies on the Abuse and Decline of Reason: Text and Documents. Edited by Bruce Caldwell, Liberty Fund, 2018.

Korda, Natasha. “Dame Usury: Gender, Credit, and (Ac)Counting in the Sonnets and ‘The Merchant of Venice.’” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 2, 2009, pp. 129–53. JSTOR Journals.
Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. Edited by John Russell Brown, Arden Shakespeare, 2006.

Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Edited by D. D. Raphael and A L Macfie, Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 2007. 


Walter Donway

Very engaging comment and exceptionally well related to economic principles and ideas of justice. It would have helped me, who read "The Merchant of Venice" is high school (1960), and recall nothing, to be reminded WHY Shylock is under the gun to convert to Christianity. Isn't it because Portia convinces the court that Shylock for conspiring to murder a Christian is required by law to surrender his estate, half to Venice and half to Antonio, and to convert to Christianity?

Gary McGath

In a liberal society, certain kinds of contracts have to be considered unenforceable. People cannot, for example, sell themselves into lifelong slavery, since a slave has no rights, not even the right to contract. A penalty clause entailing the nearly certain death of the person who forfeits should similarly be impermissible.