Type / Thesis

Searching for Justice Breaking with the Tribal, Capitalist, and State Mode of Economic Exchange in The Merchant of Venice

Yao-Hung HUANG

Page / 37-64


This paper attempts to examine the interactions among different characters through four different modes of economic exchange in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Ordered according to a teleological view of historical progress, the first refers to equal reciprocation in gift-giving. The second refers to capitalist modes of exchange. The third is the exchange of obedience for protection from the state. The final one is marked by personal sacrifice which has its foundations in a personal relationship with God, and a commitment to justice. I will first discuss how people who lived in tribal societies under processes of reciprocal exchange strengthen the bonds they shared with each other. Then, I will analyze the modes of commodity exchange representative of capitalism. The social-contract mode of exchange is dealt with when Shylock seeks the state’s protection through its institutions. I will show that this drama presents these first three exchange as burdensome for both givers and receivers. Based on Jacques Derrida’s discussion, I stress that Portia’s last judgment does not really present the pursuit of true justice through exchange as a means to break with other modes of economic exchange. Instead, her judgment based on Christian merchants and her self-interest in Venice results in violent intolerance towards the non-Christian Shylock. I attempt to offer readers a reflective strategy for thinking again about the necessity and inevitability of the pernicious effects of economic exchange, such as land expropriation, land readjustment, or economic deregulation and development.

Keywords : Karatani, Derrida, Mauss, Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Economic exchange
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