Commercializing the Body

by and | Fall 2015
John Gulledge

John Gulledge

I am a senior in the English undergraduate program at the University of South Carolina. My research interests are in Early Modern drama, rhetoric, and jurisprudence. “Commercializing the Body” ar... read more
I am a senior in the English undergraduate program at the University of South Carolina. My research interests are in Early Modern drama, rhetoric, and jurisprudence. “Commercializing the Body” arose from a pursuit in combining my research interests to form an interdisciplinary examination of The Merchant of Venice. That pursuit became my senior thesis, and has taught me the importance in integrative work across multiple platforms of scholarship. I have also presented this paper in the 2013 Undergraduate Literary Conference hosted at the University of South Carolina. In writing this paper, I am indebted to Dr. Nina Levine, who served as my thesis director and whose wise guidance and enthusiasm helped keep things in perspective. To Dr. Jennifer Tyburczy, I am forever grateful and owe special thanks to your attention to detail and immeasurable ability to bring out the best in each of your students.

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Jennifer Tyburczy

Jennifer Tyburczy

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Commercializing the Body: Trade, Contract, and Agency in The Merchant of Venice

Contracts of Flesh: Portia’s Rise to Agency


In this article, I take Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice as my backdrop to explore and illuminate how the commercialization of flesh and body in the play can only fully be understood through its contextualization in sociological concepts of gift-exchange, early modern contract law, and the rise of the merchant class during this period. At this time, English economy, contract law, and cultural notions of agency/autonomy were all shifting and expanding both theoretically and pragmatically, and much has been said about the historical consequences these changes caused – how mercantile culture permeated English society, how the reexamination of contractual relationships challenged English Law both judicially and politically, how legal/economic implications of a man’s word, his promise, engendered the need for ‘free-agency’. My goal here is to interrogate how within such written and spoken texts these phenomena may negotiate and perhaps reconcile coexistence. That is to say, I attempt to discover how the body becomes a commodity, how this commercialized flesh is exchanged, economized, contracted, and then ultimately how Portia, by partaking in such trade, develops her own subjective agency in a seemingly homosocial and patriarchal milieu. This argument should not be confused with “the traffic in women” paradigm or with a mere analysis of how women are objectified by images of flesh, conversations of exchange, and use of the law, important as these analyses are. Rather, I question, like historian Patricia Crawford does, the theoretical obsession with oppression and suffering, to argue instead for The Merchant of Venice as a text that positions women as mercantilists who capitalize on the historicity of commercialized flesh in the service of economic agency.


Commercializing the Body: Trade, Contract, and Agency in

The Merchant of Venice

Critics who have studied The Merchant of Venice have examined how the play’s overarching themes are couched in early modern discourse on sociality and the economy and how this discourse connects to emerging notions of capitalism. Indeed, even the play’s presentation of gender vis-à-vis marriage as a contract locates a social relation(ship) founded in trade. As Marcel Mauss argues in his Essai sur Le don, the play depicts exchange – giving, receiving, and reciprocating gifts – as a practice that governs this social intercourse. The sociologist Lévi-Strauss, in his famous The Elementary Structures of Kinship, explains the social concepts that suggest this basic notion of human interaction, and also underlie trade, economy, and specifically marriage as “[t]he total relationship of exchange.” Lévi-Strauss goes on to argue for the tangential role of women in marriage wherein, “marriage is not established between a man and woman but between two groups of men, and the woman figures as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners.”[1] Marriage has always served as one of the most fundamental forms of gift exchange. Within this practice, women serve as the most basic of gifts (an image we can see in our traditions of a father ‘giving away’ his daughter during a wedding ceremony[2]). In this paper, I explore the ways in which Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice provides sociological narratives of gift-exchange, marriage, contract law, and economic agency during the Early Modern period to trace the play’s female lead, Portia, as she moves her own body from currency to mercantilism and from commodity to agency, albeit an agency that within the current social structure comes out compromised depending on sex and gender.

The concept of social gift-exchange revitalizes the paradigm that women figure as capital, as objects of tender among men, but more importantly gives foundation to the theory of male same-sex desire in the platonic sense, namely homosocialty[3]. This sociological concept describes male-male relations in every possible form, but historically has been reserved for relationships outside of the erotic.[4] Karen Newman defines the homosocial as: “The whole spectrum of bonds between men [including] friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual geniality, and economic exchange – within which the various forms of the traffic in women take place.”[5] The woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners, with the goal of the transaction being a strengthening in the bonds among and between men. Newman continues, “Food, women, children, possessions, charms, land, labour, services, religious offices and works, rank [were all] circulated in exchange”[6] – a formula that suggests women (and children for that matter) constitute the same capacity for commodification that food or land would – indeed that any property would. In fact, during the early modern period, marriage contracts and settlements, familial letters and wills, conduct books and sermons alike recognize in marriage an economic transaction based on the exchange of gifts – women, cash, annuities, rents, land.[7]

Through an interdisciplinary analysis that combines literary, sociological, and political economic readings of The Merchant of Venice, I look to the ways in which economic and legal shifts in Elizabethan culture intersect with Shakespeare’s play. While it would be worthwhile project, this interdisciplinary approach does not seek to provide new insights into Renaissance law by analyzing the use of legal terminology and/or the law’s general concepts in the play. Instead, I argue that a focus on the law, particularly the law of marriage and what I call the commercialization of the body, provides a new a heuristic entrance to understanding of the agency, trade, and contracts that constitute early modern exchange transactions. Specifically, my approach looks to the law in order to deepen Shakespeare’s critical meanings, consulting legal history for elaboration on what Shakespeare’s plays are literally doing. As Gary Minda argues in “Law and Literature at Century’s End”:

The theoretical interaction of law and literature implies studying texts and language in order to disclose their ethical, political and cultural significance, it aims at discovering new possibilities, by analyzing how law and literature are interrelated in terms of linguistic and cultural features.[8]

Like Minda, I seek to read the texts through the lens of such legal terms as economy, contract, and agency in context to gain insight into potential consequences they present or heighten in the play as a whole.

Contracts of Flesh: Portia’s Rise to Agency

To conduct such an analysis, I follow Merchant’s heroine, Portia, as she uses her own body as currency to navigate through a gendered existence that is, as she calls it, “fat” with men. It is my contention that women may find agency within the early modern world of ‘male-merchants’ through a process that recognizes the seismic changes in Elizabethan cultural and social experience. It is inarguable that for this period, and specifically for the play, a woman’s economic and/or legal agency is not afforded to her by right of her genitalia. The relationship between social readings of biology and the political clout of the possessor of such readings becomes apparent when Portia and Nerissa choose to dress in clothing gendered male in order to garner legal agency. This is a truth about genital equipment that Portia makes all too clear when she confesses to Nerissa that in their transvestism the men “shall think we are accomplished/ With that we lack” (3.4.63-4).[9] In the play, Portia’s actions suggest that a woman must first accept her predetermined role in this gendered economy before gaining full economic and contractual agency. To do so, I argue, she must trade in her own flesh. This transaction can be seen as the first in a series of steps that women, such as Portia, must take to transform their bodies into a currency that the emerging archetypal figure of the merchant may access. Only through this trade can Portia emerge on the other end of that transaction as an agent of trade and contract. My theory of the commercialization of flesh contextualized in Merchant is therefore a claim that female power arises from transgressive acts that must still remain within the parameters of Elizabethan societal model(s). During the Early Modern, to usurp the homosocial agenda, a woman cannot avoid the commodification of her own flesh if she is to enter the realm of mercantilism as a (compromised) agent.

The play’s appropriation of mercantilism suggests the ways in which the social shifts in law and economy manifest through overarching themes and language. Whether it be “rich lading wrack’d on the narrow seas” (3.3.3) or simply a pound of flesh, the exchange of goods characterizes the play’s action and plot. Indeed, the drama is set against a backdrop ‘deal’ between Antonio, the merchant (for whom the play is titled) and Shylock, the Jewish investor. Through this exchange, Antonio is able to fund Bassanio’s quest in acquiring Portia, but it comes at a cost of flesh. Antonio, who Bassanio admittedly “owe[s] the most in money and love” (1.1.131), must meet the requirements of Shylock’s investment:[10]

Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit

Be nominated for an equal pound

Of [Antonio’s] fair flesh, to be cut off and taken

In what part of [his] body [that] pleaseth [Shylock].


These four characters, Antonio, Shylock, Bassanio, and Portia, represent the agents (and commodities) at trade within the play.

During the Early Modern period, England, like most of Europe, saw the rise of a new class of tradesman – the merchant. The supporting framework to this mercantile culture’s increasing affluence included shifting ideologies in social and political structures, an increase in legal instrumentation, the expanded availability of those legal instruments or tools, and the further development of Civil Law, specifically contract law.[11] English society was swiftly reevaluating its concept of law, order, and government, shifts that A.W.B. Simposon attributes to common law courts in the early sixteenth century and their permitting of actions between English citizens to be brought for damages for the breach of parole promises[12]. Simposon suggests that this trend reflects a growing evolution in the Elizabethan concept of consideration.[13] During this time, the concept of signified shared beliefs of value in relation to one’s word or promise. This transition to a parole model prominently framed the rise of the contract; that is to say, the legal narrative shaping civil law at this time shifted and further linked sentiments of individual agreements between citizens and the bond(s) or relationships one’s ‘word’ creates. For the Early Modern period, specifically in English jurisprudence, this meant the rise of assumpsit, or the ability and right to pursue legal remedy against the breach of civil contracts. In it is within this changing world, that women, like Portia, may begin to act as tradesmen.

When evaluating this pivotal moment in the development of contracts and the expansion of more legalistic modes of thinking, many historians turn to how academia and the arts “refound” classical texts. That is, how European culture began to romanticize and celebrate a notion of the “antique,” how secular and temporal ideologies concerning personhood expanded, and how the Reformation and its subsequent chain of events reshaped English society. Like Daniel Capri, I argue that this emergence of the parole promise in a legal and contractual framework – characteristic of this very shift I am talking about – negotiates the deconstruction of a religious body politic for the more radical, Protestant-driven free-agent model. [14] As English citizens began adopting this and other similar theories/beliefs, much faith was placed on the legal notion of a contractual relationship based on consideration, surety, bond, and forfeiture out of conditionals.

These changes in contract law, trade, and even English perception of subjectivity would not have been lost on Shakespeare. We now know that he owned several pieces of land and property and negotiated at least one handfasting between two close acquaintances – even later (after writing Merchant) he served as a witness in a trial where questions of dowry, of a breach of marital contract, and of a lack of contractual consideration surrounding the marriage were at stake.[15] So, it is no surprise that just as England was venturing into a new century laced with all of these cultural changes, Shakespeare fashioned a play that considers trade and marriage with the anxieties and conveniences mercantilism and Contract Law were beginning to produce more frequently. [16]

As previously mentioned, Karen Newman’s scholarship on Merchant articulates the anthropological and sociological concepts that underlie the play, such as homosociality, structures of economic exchange, gift-giving as social intercourse, and the ‘trafficking of women’ paradigm.[17] Nevertheless Newman’s article only provides a framework of necessary tools for my over-arching goal – a goal that simply investigates the process(es) by which Portia not only engages the homosocial in the text’s economic-obsessed locale, but ultimately discovers her own legal and economic agency. Moreover, it is the very framework of the homosocial and commercialization of flesh that first allows a woman, Shakespeare’s Portia, to engage in contractual trade.

Portia’s most useful strategy, albeit passive in many ways, is her craftsmanship of language, of logos, which recalls Simpson’s claim concerning the ways in which language, specifically “speech”, (re)shaped models of contract. My analysis, however, moves beyond speech to incorporate the transgressive performances that Portia enacts in order to participate in practices of exchange pertinent to early modern mercantilism. Historically, women were only given a form of legal agency when it concerned their word, or what we might call truthfulness, and even then, they were restricted to the Ecclesiastes Courts where matters of religion and morality took precedent. For me, Portia’s agency is not limited to her “linguistic prowess,” and in fact requires a more holistic embodiment in order to enter into the realm of the merchant[18]. Moreover, I am inclined to consider Portia’s masterful use of language as merely instrumental in her trading of body and flesh (both physically in contract and figuratively in her use of imagery). That is, the trade and economy of flesh, blood, and body is one that relies on a shared understanding that this economy is characterized by contractual relationships that are at times abstractly presented within the play through imagery and metaphor. Indeed, the text negotiates this mental construct most obviously through rhetorical manipulation – but, what is most obvious is certainly not all-together conclusive. Language and imagery, and the skilled use of such, is simply a required tool within the economy – oaths (employed by the numerous male suitors, who all pursue Portia, their prize), riddles (employed by Portia, and arguably by her deceased father in his game of caskets), and legal precision (which is discussed in detail below) that indicate one’s ability to uncover and bolster agency – it is not the agency per se. Instead, the agency comes from the characters’ ability to engage one another in contractual relationships that involve the trade of flesh, through the tools mercantilism is beginning to afford at this time.

As I have previously mentioned, the homosocial structure is fast at work in the mercantile relationships amongst the male characters. In Act 3, Bassanio is called away back to Venice by a letter that, as he puts it, is “the body of [Antonio] / And every word in it a gaping wound / Issuing lifeblood (3.2.271-73). With Antonio in trouble, Bassanio leaves before consummating his marriage, but Portia, nonetheless, evokes an image of the ideal lady when she swears “My maid Nerissa, and myself meantime / Will live as maids and widows” (3.2.318-9) and that “There is a monastery two miles off / And there we will abide” (3.5.31-2). Portia rhetorically presents herself in precisely the place the current social model wishes to place her: as chaste, silent, and obedient. In truth however, Portia goes to Venice as well, but disguised as a man, specifically as a “civil doctor” who practices and is well-versed in the law. In the court scene itself, Portia demonstrates her ability to costume and perform in

Productive labor reserved for men, and not insignificantly, in linguistic labor, in a profession the successful practice of which depends on a knowledge of history and precedent, on logic and reasoning, and on rhetoric, all areas of education traditionally denied to women.[19]

Portia is resisting the social, sexual, and economic system of which she is a part by developing her own legal agency in her use of language and performance.

In Merchant, the relationship between contract law and the homosocial economy of flesh is not only marked by demonstrations of speech and performance. In his article on legal ‘props’ within the play, Gary Watt discerns that the employment of synecdoche is crucial to Elizabethan law, specifically contract law.[20] Indeed, the play references and uses many of these props: the rings, the knife, the scales; but most pertinent for Portia is the ring she gives to Bassanio. Like Watt, I am compelled to investigate the similarity of the ring’s exchange to a contractual trade or ‘gifting’ of land and/or property. Portia’s oath to Bassanio is sealed – like all proper ‘contract agreements’ would have been – by that very ring, which immediately reveals itself as a prop synecdoche for Portia’s flesh and body – unsurprisingly, this happens by means of language and speech. In other words, Portia, in accordance with the shifting trends of assumpsit and consideration, immediately fashions a bond, a contractual relationship, in her marriage (a more appropriate label for what takes place may actually be an “economic transfer and binding”), which creates an exchange involving an object that figures both physically and figuratively. Moreover, in her rise to agency, the legal prop is given in a speech laced with economical terminology: “a sum of something, which to term in gross”, “sum of me”, “your account”, “rich”, “trebled twenty times myself”, and articulated always in the physical and material: “fair mansion”, “servants”, “household”, “prize” (3.2.153-175).[21] Portia directly presents her bodily value in terms of the financial or of material property, suggesting that an economy of flesh, like other social constructs, relies on the composition of the exchange; she is the ring, now in Bassanio’s possession, representing all the property he has newly gained. With that said, the transgressive behavior at work here is that Portia, herself, conducts the trade. She may not be a free-agent outside the gendered economy, but within that economy she demonstrates her ability to gift body and flesh to her husband, albeit her own.

Sensitive to the shifts in economic agency and rise in mercantilism are notions of worth, which also entails the growing concept of consideration as fundamental to contractual relationships. A.G. Harmon, in the chapter “Matching Meanings: Contracts, Bonds, and Sureties in The Merchant of Venice,” negotiates the worth and quality of different bonds (i.e. for him: the “commercial bond” v. the “friendship bond”) that I contend are not only between bodies, but also bound by bodies/flesh. [22] In so doing, he offers much argument to the homosocial nature of marriage and the marital contract when he notes that the play requires the characters to “hazard their all” – an image of sacrifice, of bargaining one’s own body and perhaps the bodies of others, for some personal or societal gain (consideration). Antonio’s willingness to sacrifice himself is a testament to the importance of maintaining strong and stable homosocial relationships – his sacrifice is for the sake of that very conceptual model, for at face value, it is about one man helping his friend literally get and retrieve a material prize, a woman. Bassanio’s acquisition of Portia was always about two men working together, helping each other, and bonding.

Harmon’s argument suggests that contracts and bonds afford relationships that inevitably require an understanding, whether conscious or not, that the body is ultimately what is being committed, or rather, what is at stake in the relationship. This understanding then supports this paper’s claim that one’s ability to fashion flesh, whether it be one’s own or the flesh of another, is the fundamental element in contractual relationships. Portia, by accepting first her predetermined role as an object of trade in the strengthening of homosocial bonds, is then able to exchange herself – fashioning her flesh as commodity while embracing her own subjectivity as an agent.

As the ring resurfaces, moving from person to person in the play, it collects new meanings and values, fortifying this metonymical implication. From the moment Portia conceptually imbues the ring with a meaning that signifies her flesh and person, the prop, this instrument one may fashion as needed, begins negotiating the entire narrative towards Portia’s rise in agency. The moment Portia is given to Bassanio (by her deceased father’s will), she jumps to give herself over to her new husband both wholly and completely, as she “commits [herself] to [his] to be directed / As from her lord, her governor, her king” (3.2.167-8). The fact that Portia was given as merely an object in this deal between Bassanio and her father is important in understanding that this crucial element of gift-giving between men in a patriarchal society exists and holds even after one agent is no longer present. This suggests that the conceptual model is actually in power, while men follow suit to keep fast its maintenance. The fact that Portia’s father is no longer alive does not, compromise the homosocial principle that the woman is an object to strengthen male bonds, in this case between Antonio and Bassanio.

Bassanio, operating in a world of male exchange and bonds, has to choose later in the play between two types of honor: that ‘owed’ to his wife in keeping the ring or to the “civil doctor / […] that had held up the very life / of [his] dear friend” (5.1.227). That dear friend is none other than Antonio, who had aided Bassanio before in his quest to acquire and retrieve Portia. This pivotal moment suggests that the pressing concern for the genitally-equipped male characters is the stability of male-relationships founded in social expectations paramount to the homosocial paradigm. The bond to the “civil doctor” is more important to Bassanio, as it turns out, and for this legal/economic world of agents, this bond is crucial to the ‘male-merchant’ relationship that drives the cultural economy of gift-exchange and ultimately supersedes the bond between a man and a woman created in matrimony. good

Interestingly, the status of flesh as currency persists, even with the agential rise of women in the play. In Act 5, Portia berates her husband for losing the ring she gave him, or rather for losing his “wife’s first gift / A thing stuck on with oaths upon your finger, / And so riveted with faith unto your flesh” (5.1.178-80). The ring, seemingly an object of pure materialistic and superficial means, carries metonymical implications of flesh and body, Indeed, this is seen by the fact that Portia “will ne’er come in [Bassanio’s] bed / Until [she] see[s] the ring” (5.1.201-2), suggesting firstly, that the ring serves as a part of Portia’s body, both sexually and intimately. Secondly, there is an anxiety over individual possession of one’s own body and flesh, which, when contextualized within Elizabethan history, appears most important to women and their potential economic worth.[23] Still, in the trade, women are objects, even though now we see Portia begin to dictate how her own body is to be commercialized. Bassanio, in his attempt to reestablish a crumbling homosocial economy says, “If you did know to whom I gave the ring, / If you did know for whom I gave the ring, / And would conceive for what I gave the ring, / You would abate the strength of your displeasure” (5.1.205-8). The “to whom” is the (he assumes) male lawyer who saved his “dearest”, male friend; the “for whom” is Antonio, that very same “dearest friend”; and the “for what” is the gift of saving his friend’s flesh from actually turning into the forfeiture of Shylock’s almost anti-homosocial will.

In this exchange Portia rhetorically continues to exchange her flesh with the “civil doctor.” As she claims to Bassanio, Portia will now “become as liberal as him” (5.1.239) in that she will “not deny [the civil doctor] anything [she] ha[s] / Not [her] body nor [her] husband’s bed!” (5.1.240-41). Portia is stating that she will rise to the same freedom of trade that her husband is able to partake in; that is, while he may be exchanging the ring, a symbol of her body, she too can make such trades of her own flesh. No longer is the economy exclusively male. Instead, she implicates that she has right over her own body and can trade it as she pleases. She does so by taking full advantage of the ways in which the representation of her body has rhetorically transformed as it moves between characters in each exchange.

The concept of a contract of flesh, however, goes much deeper in the play. One of the most notable conflicts in Merchant is driven by a contract and exchange between two men: Antonio and Shylock, the investor. This is significant for two reasons: first, at least at the start, the exchange is still between men for the purposes of creating and strengthening homosocial bonds. Second, the objectified flesh is a man’s and not a woman’s. Antonio becomes an agent and the object in the exchange – something, as I have already mentioned, Portia does later in the play. Antonio simultaneously engages Shylock and Bassanio as economic agent in their agreed upon contractual relationship, but with the former merchant Antonio must offer up his own flesh in the exchange. The crucial difference here is that Antonio is always acting as free-agent because, as the play suggests and the period reflects, he is predisposed, by birth-right and genital equipment, to subjectivity and social freedoms in trade, law, and economy.

Portia’s rise to agency, however, is one that takes the entire play to cultivate; and is not complete when she commands control over her own objectified flesh. She continues to move toward complete agency during the confrontation with Bassanio over his giving away the ring. In this scene, Antonio steps forward to help his friend once again:

I once did lend my body for his wealth,

[…] I dare be bound again,

My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord

Will never more break faith advisedly. (5.1.264-9)

We have a new contract being put forward, with two new agents, and a new (or not so new) piece of flesh to bind the contract. Antonio suggests that he “dare be bound again” to imply that he will do what he has done for Bassanio in the past: put a pound of his flesh on the line. The two agents are Bassanio and Portia, who has now raised herself to an agent without having to use her own flesh as currency – all happening within about 100 lines. Once again, the ring begins to move in a contractual relationship, bonding new parties and gathering new meaning(s). Now the ring, the contractual prop and seal, is a synecdoche for Antonio’s flesh in the contract, and Portia an agent who no longer trades her own flesh in this commercialization of the body. While she may never become “fully” an agent within the social parameters within which she exists, she proves her ability to manufacture her own agency that no longer involves her own body as traded good(s).

When confronted by Bassanio about the ring being the exact same as before, Portia exclaims: “I had it of him / For by this ring the doctor lay with me” (5.1.273-4). In other words, Portia gains agency when she gets the ring from the doctor who has already laid with her in body and flesh through the symbolic ring. The entire concept of objectifying the bodies and persons of women in gift exchange is thwarted by the fact that when her body is transferred, she actually gains power, not loses it.

The Merchant of Venice, as its title implies, is very conscious of terms and concepts regarding mercantilism and economics. While it is the language of the play that stresses the materiality of exchange and the currency-consciousness of its characters, all of the contracts depend upon the commercialization of the flesh and their embodied performances. It seems that a rise in agency comes with not just an acknowledgment of this system but by an exploitation of it; once Portia is able to recognize that the cultural and economic contracts that exist require objectified bodies, she is able to undermine the system – first by becoming agent over herself and then again when she becomes solely an agent of Antonio’s flesh. Portia’s methodical rise by fastening legal instruments, linguistic prowess, synecdoche, and cross-dressing weaken the bonds between men; that is to say, the cultural implications that men are the subjective merchants is turned upside down the moment Portia is able to compete and trade with them.



Works Cited

Bate, Jonathan. “The Bawdy Court.” Shakespeare and the Law. (Hart Publishing) (2008) (34).

Benjamin, Jessica. The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of  Domination.(Pantheon) (1988).

Carpi, Daniel. “Law and its Subversion in Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare and the  Law.” Shakespeare and the Law. (Hart Publishing) (2008).

E.T. The Lawes Resolution of Women’s Rights (1632)

Finin, Kathryn R. “Performative Subversions: Portia, Language, and the Law.” Justice, Women, and Power in English Renaissance Drama ed. Andrew Majeske and Emily Detmer-Goebel (Associated University Press) (2009).

Harmon,A.G. Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem  Plays (State University of New York Press) (2004).                                                                                                         ——– “The Semblance of Virtue” (15-16).

Kornstein, Daniel. Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal. (University of Nebraska Press) (2005).

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Les Structures élémentaires de la parenté (1949, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, ed. Rodney Needham, trans. J. H. Bell, J. R. von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham) (1969).

Medoro, Dan. “So Very Self-Evident: Adultery and Abortion in ‘The Purloined Letter.’” Literature and Medicine, Volume 26, Number 2, (Johns Hopkins University Press) (2007).

Minda, Gary. “Law and Literature at Century’s End” 9(2) Cardozo Studies in Law and  Literature (1997) (245).

Newman, Karen. “Reprise: Gender, Sexuality, and Theories of Exchange in The  Merchant of Venice,” The Merchant of Venice. Ed. Nigel Wood. (Open University Press) (1996)                                ——- “Portia’s Ring: Unruly Women and Structures of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare Quarterly 38. Folger Shakespeare Library. (Johns Hopkins University Press) (1987) (19-33).

Nicholl, Charles. The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (London, Allen Lane) (2007) (251-58).

Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz. Law’s Stories: Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (Yale University Press) (996).

Rackin, Phyllis. “Misogyny Everywehre.” A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare ed. Dympna Callaghan. (Wiley-Blackwell) (2001).

Ranald’s, Margaret Loftus. “Shakespeare and His Social Context: Essays in Osmotic Knowledge and Literary Interpretation.” Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, Volume 27, issue 1. (1991).

Sedgwick, Eve. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. (Columbia University Press) (1985).

Sinfield, Alan. How to Read The Merchant of Venice without Being Heterosexist.” Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2, ed. Terence Hawkes (Routledge) (1996) (123-39).

Shakespeare, William. The Merchant of Venice. (W.W. Norton & Company) (2006)

Shapiro, James. “Circumcision and the ‘Pound of Flesh.’” Shakespeare and the Jews  (Columbia University Press) (1996) (121-130).

Watt, Gary. “The Law of Dramatic Properties in The Merchant of Venice.Shakespeare  and the Law. (Hart Publishing) (2008).

Wing, John. The Crowne Coniugall and The Spouse Royall (1620)


[1] For a literary analysis pursuing this ‘objectification of women’ paradigm in The Merchant of Venice see Karen Newman’s “Reprise: Gender, Sexuality, and Theories of Exchange in The Merchant of Venice,” The Merchant of Venice (Nigel Wood; Open University Press, 1996)

[2] For a psychoanalytic approach to this theory of women objectified to serve the subjectivity of ‘autonomous’ men, see Jessica Benjamin’s The Bonds of Love, 1988

[3] For a gender studies reading of the homosocial in English literature see Eve Sedgwick’s Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985)

[4] For a more “homoerotic” reading, see Alan Sinfield’s How to Read The Merchant of Venice without Being Heterosexist” from Alternative Shakespeares, Volume 2, ed. Terence Hawkes (London and New York: Routledge, 1996): 123-39

[5] Ibid. (220) (emphasis added)

[6] Newman (104)

[7] Ibid. (109); also see E.T., The Lewes Resolution of Women’s Rights (1632) specifically Bk. II, xxxii and John Wing, The Crowne Coniugall, or The Spouse Royall (1620) for primary evidence

[8] Gary Minda, ‘Law and Literature at Century’s End’ (1997) 9(2) Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature (245); Also see Peter Brooks and Paul Gewirtz, Law’s StoriesL Narrative and Rhetoric in the Law (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1996) for more on the relationship between Law and the Humanities in historical criticism

[9] William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice (W.W. Norton & Company, 2006) All further references will be from this same Norton edition

[10] For a fascinating reading of the play that explores the problems of corcumscion and potential castration, see James Shapiro’s “Circumcision and the ‘Pound of Flesh’”, Shakespeare and the Jews (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996): 121-130

[11] A.G. Harmon, “The Semblance of Virtue”, Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2004) (15-16); also see Jonathan Bate, “The Bawdy Court” in Shakespeare and the Law noted above (34)

[12] See Daniela Carpi’s “Law and its Subversion in Romeo and Juliet in Shakespeare and the Law” for an interesting look into how the relationship of the Prince and the Law compares to the Subject and the Concrete, Practical Problems actually faced. Capri locates the relationship of a “universal law” against a very particular one, a “text” against its subjective interpretation; in doing so, he makes use of F. de Saussure’s famous work on structural linguistics, particularly the relationship between the langue and the parole. See also Course in General Linguistics for Saussure’s theory as it applies to linguistics/semiotics.

[13] A.W.B. Simpson, The Legal Theory and Legal History: Essays on the Common Law (London: Hambledon, 1987) (111)

[14] See Daniela Carpi’s “Law and its Subversion in Romeo and Juliet” from Paul Raffield and Gary Watt’s Shakespeare and the Law (Oxford and Portland, Oregon, Hart Publishing, 2008) for an interesting look into the relationship of a universal law with a very particular one, a ‘text’ or ‘code’ against its subjective interpretation.

[15]Charles Nicholl, The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (London, Allen Lane, 2007) (251-58); for more on Shakespeare’s involvement in the Mountjoy Case see also Daniel Kornstein, Kill All the Lawyers? Shakespeare’s Legal Appeal (Lincoln, NE, University of Nebraska Press, 2005)

[16] See Margaret Loftus Ranald’s “Shakespeare and His Social Context: Essays in Osmotic Knowledge and Literary Interpretation” in Renaissance and Reformation / Renaissance et Réforme, Volume 27, issue 1, 1991 for her take on ‘Osmotic Knowledge’ and how it suggests English citizens would be aware of court systems and economic activity

[17] From Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 19-33. Folger Shakespeare Library. Note that this article is from which Newman writes her ‘Reprise’ on the “trafficking of women”, cited on page one of this paper

[18] See Kathryn R. Finin’s “Performative Subversions: Portia, Language, and the Law” in Justice, Women, and Power in English Renaissance Drama ed. Andrew Majeske and Emily Detmer-Goebel (Associated University Press) (2009) wherein she locates Portia in a place of agency and power that is connected to (and as she suggests, dependent on) her “linguistic prowess”

[19] Newman (103)

[20] Gary Watt, ‘The Law of Dramatic Properties in The Merchant of VeniceShakespeare and the Law (Hart Publishing, Oxford and Portland, Oregon, 2008) as edited by Paul Raffield and Gary Watt

[21] Emphasis added

[22] From Eternal Bonds, True Contracts: Law and Nature in Shakespeare’s Problem Plays (State University of New York Press, Albany, 2004)


[23] See Dana Medoro’s ‘So Very Self-Evident: Adultery and Abortion in “The Purloined Letter”’: Literature and Medicine, Volume 26, Number 2, Fall 2007 (Johns Hopkins University Press) for an interesting read on women’s anxieties over body ownership and reproductive rights

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