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Expert Comment: The Merchants of Menace?

The Merchant of Venice Thursday 16 July 2015

Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes finds parallels between the current Greek economic crisis and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice.

What do you do when a debt, though legal, is clearly unjust and unfair? That is the question at the heart of the current Greek crisis and the main plot-line of The Merchant of Venice. In Shakespeare’s play, the money-lender Shylock agrees to loan 3,000 ducats to Antonio, the Venetian merchant of the title. When Antonio’s merchant fleet is reported lost at sea, Shylock lays claim to the forfeit that had been agreed – a pound of Antonio’s flesh. All efforts to persuade Shylock to show mercy fail, until at the last moment Portia - a rich and beautiful heiress who ends up acting the role of the lawyer in the crucial hearing, but that’s a whole other part of the story - traps him by arguing that the deal stipulates a pound of flesh, but no blood whatsoever. So if a single drop of blood is shed in claiming the flesh, the loan agreement instantly becomes null and void.

Leaving aside many other aspects of the play – not least its ugly vein of anti-Semitism (the eloquent speech by Shylock in Act III Scene 1 notwithstanding) the interesting notion is that repayment of a debt should surely not be so injurious or damaging to the debtor as to risk their lives. Yet, that seems to be what is being imposed on the Greek people. Nikitis Kanakis of Médécins du Monde calls the Greek situation a “humanitarian crisis”, unemployment has more than doubled and is in excess of 50 per cent for young people, labour conditions have been forced down, there has been a huge increase in homelessness, more than 40 per cent of people are now below the poverty line, around 50 hospitals have been closed, many vital medicines are no longer available and the country has seen a horrifying rise in the number of suicides. People are dying as a result of the years of imposed austerity, even though over 90 per cent of the bailout loans to date have gone straight back to Greece’s creditors rather than the Greek people. Despite this, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and many others admit that without substantial debt relief, the austerity policies cannot work and can only deepen the economic and social crisis.

This is a pound of flesh being torn bloodily from the body of a nation. People’s lives are being ruined, and with no prospect of recovery in any meaningful time frame. Perhaps those in the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF and many European governments – not least the government here in the UK – would do well to consider the other of The Merchant of Venice’s two famous speeches, from Act IV scene 1:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Picture: Antonio reproaching Shylock - See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


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