The Dark Side of Fairness: Reading Merchant of Venice after #Ferguson & #Icantbreathe

This paper examines risk and justice in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, two often-discussed concepts that have been integral to the play’s long and robust critical history. My analysis of risk and justice will attend to race as well, and in particular, a phenomenon I invoke in my title as “the dark side of fairness.” This phrasing is intended to encapsulate the respective (and distinct) 16th century and 21st century valences of the operative term, including the early modern use of “fair” to mean attractive, valuable, and virtuous, the primary modern sense of equitable dealing, as well as the trans-historically common use of the term to mean light-skinned. We know from several critics, and especially the foundational work of Kim Hall, that this word carries the implication of racial difference but is also bound up in other early modern preoccupations, including gendered norms of behavior, and in this play in particular, in conflicts over religion. My own reading of the play focuses on fairness and risk to interrogate the privileges afforded to whiteness, if not “white” people, and to show how Shakespeare’s portrayal of these privileges in Merchant resonates with events crucial to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent American history.

Hall’s landmark study of the early modern period, Things of Darkness, culminates in a call to use early modern literature, including Shakespeare, “to do antiracist work” (266) in our criticism and our classrooms; this essay offers a response to this call, albeit one that feels simultaneously belated and ever more essential. In the same timely and untimely fashion, it also responds to the provocation in Peter Erikson’s reflections on “The Moment of Race in Renaissance Studies” in 1995 to “put the whiteness back in Othello.” Erikson noted in that piece that “the purview of race is not limited to images of blackness but also very much involves the fashioning of a discourse of racial whiteness”; I want to consider this premise, two decades later, as it applies to the Merchant of Venice and two grand jury decisions in the United States regarding police officers who killed unarmed black men. In particular, I want to attend to the play’s depiction of the “fairness” of Venetian justice in light of Grand Jury decisions regarding police officers for the lethal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and choking of Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York.

In placing the play in a contemporary American context, I follow in the mode not just of presentist critics like Terrence Hawkes and Hugh Grady, but also much earlier work, namely that by Richard K. Barksdale, whose optimistic reading of the play’s trial scene in 1961 provides both a precedent as well as a point of departure for my own arguments, which links Merchant to the two cases from 2014 in order to illuminate the degree to which supposedly fair institutions are predicated on the superior value of fair skin. In this aim, my work is aligned with Arthur Little Jr’s more recent essay on “white melancholia,” published in Erikson and Hall’s special issue of Shakespeare Quarterly in 2017. Like Little Jr., I have been haunted by what happened to Brown and the aftermath of protests against his murder; more recently, I was shocked by the decision of the US Attorney General not to press charges for Garner’s in my home state of New York, made in July of 2019 which marked the close of the Federal case.

In the discussion that follows, I consider fairness as a meaningful proxy for race and a phenomenon whose otherwise loosely defined and oppositional features cohere in the enactment of institutional power. In the first part of this paper, I review some of the key moments in the text where Shakespeare foregrounds the concepts of risk and reward through the diction and images in various speeches, moments whose relationship to early modern economic and legal institutions have been widely discussed in critical responses to the play. These parts will no doubt be familiar to all scholars and teachers of Shakespeare, though my intent will be to de-and re-familiarize the play’s various endorsements of risk and fairness by framing them as the casual exercise of privilege and a form of white supremacy. In the second half and conclusion, I connect the play to the institutionalized racism and white nationalism at work in the current historical moment in the United States, showing how various references to fairness work to obscure the injustices inherent in the very “quality of mercy” (4.1.179) that it valorizes.