The pound of flesh and the quick-witted lawyer

The tale behind the storyTHE Merchant Of Venice is another play by William Shakespeare. The story is set in 16th century Italy.

In it, Bassanio needs a lot of money so he can travel to see Portia and win her hand in marriage. This he finally does after passing a test set by her wealthy father.

All suitors have to choose from three boxes – one gold, one silver and one lead. Bassanio is the only one who picks the humble lead box, showing that he values more than just outward appearances.

Portia then rushes to help Antonio win his case against Shylock. But because only men could be lawyers at the time, she disguises herself as a man so she can defend him in court – and no one is the wiser till the end. Sound familiar?

IN the weeks to come, The Star’s Newspaper-in-Education (Star-NiE) programme presents a collection of stories donated by The Strait Times newspaper of Singapore for use by teachers and students in the classroom.

The stories chosen are classis legends, myths, fables and folklore from around the world rewritten as modern news or feature stories. Young readers and adults will enjoy reading the likes of William Shakespeare’s MacBeth and Hamlet and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in a modern news format. But these stories are not just good yarns.

They touch the soul, nourish the mind, and give readers a better sense of their place in the world. By sharing about the plots and characters, readers can make the stories a part of their lives.

A MONEYLENDER suing a man who was unable to repay him has had his case turned against him, and now faces jail himself.

Antonio had approached Shylock for a loan of $300,000 on behalf of his best friend Bassanio, the court heard last week.

A wealthy importer, Antonio would have been able to give Bassanio the money himself, had his cash not been tied up in several shipments.

So he turned to Shylock, who runs a private moneylending business here in Venice, for a loan. Shylock agreed, and even said he would not charge interest for the service.

This should have set off alarm bells, some say, because Shylock had been known to complain about Antonio lending money to other people without interest.

His generosity hurt Shylock’s business, because fewer people would go to the latter for loans, not wanting to pay his high rates of interest.

At the time, however, Shylock’s offer to Antonio seemed like an act of kindness.

“I’m sure you’ll be able to pay me back on time, ” the moneylender said. “If you don’t, you can give me, oh, say, a pound of flesh?”

Antonio signed a contract agreeing to this, thinking: “It will never come to that. Once my ships get back, I’ll be able to help Bassanio repay the loan.”

Last week, however, rough seas in the Atlantic Ocean delayed the vessels’ return. Suddenly, the moneylender decided he wanted his money back immediately. Of course, Antonio could not pay. So Shylock took him to court, demanding the pound of flesh promised.

Since then, the case has been on everyone’s lips. Enterprising hawkers have even been selling “Save Antonio” T-shirts outside the courthouse.

The lawyer defending Antonio was Portia, Bassanio’s clever fiancee and heiress to a million-dollar luncheon meat business.

In court, she begged Shylock for mercy. “Show kindness to others, because this is what we want others to show us, ” she said. But he would not be moved.

“Look at the contract. I want us to follow the letter of the law, ” he said repeatedly.

Portia said she would repay the loan herself, offering Shylock $600,000 -– twice the sum owed. But he insisted on having what he was due under the contract, which stated that he could take a pound (about 450g) of Antonio’s flesh from near the heart.

Things did not look good for Antonio. But then Portia had a brainwave. She told Shylock he could take the flesh, but asked if he had a doctor on hand to stop the bleeding when he cut Antonio.

“The contract says you may have a pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood. If you spill any of his blood, you will be committing a crime, ” she said.

Backed into a corner, Shylock said he would accept the $600,000 after all. But the offer was no longer on the table.

The defense now says it will launch its own lawsuit against Shylock for trying to kill Antonio, as cutting out the pound of flesh would almost certainly have done.

The case against Antonio has been dismissed, but as everyone left the courthouse yesterday, it was Shylock’s turn to beg for mercy.

“If I am sued, I will be ruined. Please don’t do it. After all, I am just like all of you — I get angry, I get sick, I bleed like everyone else.”

Antonio is reportedly considering letting Shylock off the hook.

If he does not, however, the hawkers have already printed up dozens of “Save Shylock” T-shirts for sale.

FAB VOCABSUING - Taking someone to court

IMPORTER - Someone who brings in goods from abroad for sale

INTEREST - The charge for borrowing money. For example, if you borrow RM10 from me and I charge you RM1 in interest, when you pay me back, you have to give me RM11

CONTRACT - A legal agreement

ENTERPRISING - Imaginative or willing to try new things

LETTER OF THE LAW - The exact wording of the law

BRAINWAVE - A sudden, clever idea

ON THE TABLE - Up for discussion

DISMISSED - When a case is removed from court

OFF THE HOOK - To let someone get away with something, or free them from responsibility for itIF YOU ENJOYED THIS, READ: > 12 Fabulously Funny Fairy Tale Plays by Justin Mccory Martin

> The Salem Witch Trials: An Unsolved Mystery From History by Jane Yolen, Heidi Stemple And Roger Roth

> Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino, George Martin (Translator)The Little Big Story Book: Tall Tales That Made The News by Alison de Souza. Copyright Singapore Press Holding Ltd., Printed with Permission.

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