A NEW VIEW:
THE TRIAL SCENE RECONSIDERED*

Last updated: 10/26/10


OVERVIEW

This analysis of the trial scene in The Merchant of Venice invites the reader to reconsider conventional interpretations of this famous scene in several respects:

... it is the first to consider the trial scene as if it
.. ...were an actual trial, from the perspective of an
......experienced trial lawyer who has educated himself
......in sixteenth century English laws and legal history;

... it demonstrates that Shakespeare wrote the scene as a
..... travesty of a trial, and not as the.serious, more-or-less
.... normal trial as it has been conventionally portrayed; and

... it includes an analysis of Judge Portia’s trial strategy.

PART I

The first section of this Part discusses what are to us the arcane laws and legal procedures of sixteenth century England, and provides other background information.

The second section of this Part analyzes what happens in the trial scene from its very beginning to its end, from the perspective of a legally informed member of the audience to one of the first performances of the play by Shakespeare and his acting company, circa 1597. It demonstrates that Shakespeare wrote the scene in such a manner that his audiences would have understood it to be a travesty of a trial that took place in the Court of Queen’s Bench in England.

However, virtually all discussions and enactments of the trial scene for the last two hundred years or so have treated the scene as if it were a serious, quasi-conventional trial that took place in a so-called Court of Justice in Venice. If this traditional understanding of the trial scene is so seriously mistaken, then it follows that the traditional understanding of the rest of the play may also be mistaken, and must be re-examined.

PART II

This Part discusses the early textual history of The Merchant of Venice. It demonstrates that there exists no evidence contemporary with Shakespeare’s time concerning how Shakespeare and his fellow actors may have performed The Merchant of Venice, or what anyone in any audience may have thought about such a performance.

In addition, it reveals that a period of nearly a century and a half had passed between the last known performance of
The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare and his acting company in 1605, and the next performance of the play in 1741.

Finally, it postulates that current notions regarding the trial scene are based mostly upon the unsupported assumptions, speculations, and prejudices of the first editors of Shakespeare’s
Complete Works, beginning in the eighteenth century.

PART III

This Part discusses Judge Portia’s first encounter with Shylock in the trial scene, and analyzes that encounter from the perspective of an experienced trial lawyer. It provides insight into the dynamics of the trial strategy that Judge Portia was pursuing.

PART IV

By making the trial scene a travesty of a trial, Shakespeare undermined both the Bond Plot and the Casket Plot. Why would he do such a thing, and what must really be going on in the play?

This analysis does not address these issues in any detail. However, I have done some research into various possible approaches, and have included summaries of that research, together with brief discussions of my preliminary conclusions. The main issues discussed in Part IV are:

...Shakespeare wrote Shylock as the Devil —not as a Jew—
.....and wrote himself into the play as Shylock.

...Primarily in Acts Four and Five, Shakespeare wrote
.....Portia as the Risen Christ.

...Table of cross-references: The Merchant of Venice to
......Doctor Faustus and The.Jew of Malta.

...Table of cross-references: The Merchant of Venice to
..... The Gospel of John and to The Revelation of John the
......Divine.

...Table of cross-references: The Merchant of Venice to
.....The Spanish Tragedy.

...Portia’s (imagined) letter to Bellario.

...The identities of Bellario and Balthasar.

...Richard Baines and blasphemy.

...Discussion of Shylock as not a Jew at all.

HANDOUTS FOR CLASS

I have also made available two handouts that I prepared for a presentation to a class of undergraduates, who had just finished studying the trial scene. Educators interested in stimulating their students to focus on the text of the play (Handout Text), and to think critically about what they have read (Handout Notes), are welcome to download and modify these handouts from this site: http://public.me.com/wnblanton1.

SOURCES

I have listed at the end of this analysis several sources for sixteenth century English law and procedure, and for other background matters. Most of the discussion that follows consists of my original observations and conclusions based on the text of the play, my research into sixteenth century English law, and my own knowledge and experience as a trial lawyer. I will occasionally reference some of these source materials, using a shorthand citation instead of a formal footnote. As reflected in the Acknowledgements section, I have submitted earlier drafts of this article to recognized experts in sixteenth century English law and procedure, and of the history of the period (with respect to Part I), and to an experienced, award-winning trial judge (with respect to the dynamics of the trial, Part III).

REFERENCE TEXT

I will use The Applause First Folio of Shakespeare in Modern Type, Neil Freeman, editor, Applause, New York (2001) as the text for this article. Freeman has not made any editorial interventions, has retained the original spellings, and has generously given me permission to use those portions of the text that appear here. I have included as an Appendix the Trial Scene from this text.

COMMENTS

I welcome your comments and questions: wnblanton1@me.com.

Pleased to meet you.

Bill
____________________________
* My name is Bill Blanton. I am a native Houstonian, obtained a BA from Rice University, a JD with Honors from the University of Texas School of Law, and practiced law in Houston for twenty years. While in active practice, I specialized in civil litigation, and was certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in both Personal Injury Trial Law and Civil Trial Law.

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