Misquoting Shakespeare in the Name of Corruption

The trial scene in Shakespeare's THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
The trial scene in Shakespeare’s THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

CBS has a new Thursday night drama called Evil, an X-Files-esque series featuring a team of sleuths—one a believer and the other a skeptic—who investigate what appear to be demonic manifestations.

Evil stars Katja Herbers as Dr. Kristen Bouchard, a skeptical forensic psychologist, and Mike Colter as David Acosta, a former journalist studying to be a priest.

The episode that aired on October 10, 2019 features a quotation from The Merchant of Venice: “to do a great right, do a little wrong.”

The quotation, taken out of context, was used prominently in the promos and is spoken by Dr. Bouchard in the final scene of the episode, apparently to justify her illegal action in altering a digital recording in order to incriminate a witness.

The implication is that the blatantly illegal maneuver she uses to foil the villain on the witness stand is perfectly acceptable because Shakespeare said it is.

In The Merchant of Venice, the line is spoken in a courtroom. The speaker is Bassanio, a ne’er-do-well merchant who has repeatedly borrowed money from his friend Antonio in order to repair his unsuccessful financial decisions. On this occasion, Antonio, strapped for cash, has allowed Bassanio to borrow in his name from the money-lender Shylock.

Shylock, who has been the target of their repeated anti-Semitic insults and humiliations for years, drives a horrible bargain, but a legal one. The terms are that if the money is not repaid on the date due, Shylock will take a pound of Antonio’s flesh from some part of his body. A completely legal and binding contract according to the laws of Venice is drawn up and signed.

Sure enough, the bond comes due and Antonio is unable to make the payment.

Shylock insists on his rights:

If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice.
I stand for judgment: answer; shall I have it?

Bassanio, seeing that the law is on Shylock’s side, begs the judge to manipulate the law, just this once:

…I beseech you,
Wrest once the law to your authority;
To do a great right, do a little wrong.
And curb this devil of his will.

The judge rejects this reasoning at once:

It must not be. There is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established:
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.

Yes, by the end of the play, the “devil” Shylock is foiled of his hateful bond—but not by twisting  the law. The judge saves Antonio by invoking the letter of the law.

The judge points out that the contract specifies only “a pound of flesh,” and says that Shylock must take it without shedding any blood. If, in cutting off the flesh he sheds even one drop of blood, then he will be liable to penalties.

In our times as in Shakespeare’s, there’s no such thing as “a little wrong.”

A wrong is a wrong and cannot make anything right.