“I crave the law” – Shylock v Antonio plays out again

Shakespeare and the law collided as two mooting teams from the University of Auckland battled it out over a 400-year-old case, at an invitation-only moot put on by the combined efforts of Anthony Harper, Pop-up Globe and the University of Auckland Mooting Society.

I Crave The Law 

The case of Shylock v Antonio – the infamous legal dispute at the heart of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – was argued last month before the Hon Justice Rhys Harrison, formerly of the Court of Appeal.

Cast members from Pop-up Globe’s 2018 adaptation of the play – in full costume – brought the courtroom drama to life with an appropriate mixture of drama, pathos and humour, as well as reenacting the original contract scene. The mooters were prepared for their courtroom skirmish by teams from Anthony Harper, foundation sponsor of Pop-up Globe. It all made for a unique mix of performance, debate and law – with Anthony Harper’s Managing Partner, Malcolm Hurley, saying he believed it was the first time that mooting and theatre have been combined in this way.

Legal terminology peppers the play’s dialogue, with the protagonists musing over questions of justice and mercy, strict interpretation and the intent of the parties, and precedents and penalties. At “first instance”, the point of contention was whether a contract to remove a pound of someone’s flesh as a forfeit should be upheld, if that person does not perform his obligations under an agreement? Shakespeare finds in the negative, with Shylock’s seemingly watertight case foundering due to what some might consider a technicality – the omission of any mention in the contract of “blood” alongside the stipulated pound of flesh.

In the present “appeal”, the case was re-litigated on the facts as would have been known to the parties at the time, but under New Zealand law and jurisdiction. Arguments over express versus implied terms, interpretation and precontractual negotiations, contract legality and consent, equitable estoppel and severance (a word of seeming double significance, under the circumstances) were ably canvassed by the mooters – Katie Eichelbaum and Charles Barker representing Shylock, and Ahana Parande and Owen Posthuma for Antonio.

It was a highly entertaining and amusing evening, with both the mooters and judge rivalling the actors for pithy remarks and witty rejoinders. When the actor playing the Duke of Venice doffed his hat and placed it on Justice Harrison’s head (at the conclusion of the courtroom scene), his Honour promptly denominated it “a hanging hat”.

His Honour encouraged the audience to interject “if they heard anything outrageous”, and heckles such as “What’s happened to the sanctity of contract?” frequently interspersed the debate. Justice Harrison contributed his own curly questions and reined in the mooters when dramatic licence threatened to take over (allusions to dripping blood and liposuction notably featured in this regard and, at one point, an attempt to cite “the vibe”).

Justice Harrison also drew the audience’s attention to those authorities cited by counsel on which he had sat as a judge, and noted (ominously or promisingly) whether his decisions had been upheld or reversed. At one point, on counsel attempting to argue that a precedential line needed to be drawn for future occasions, his Honour hilariously queried, “Do you think this situation is going to happen often?”

But despite putting all the mooters well and truly through their paces, Justice Harrison eventually ruled it a draw, having been impressed by argument from both teams.

“This kind of event teaches young lawyers to participate in front of a live, interactive audience, rather than some sterile environment. It was a fun thing to do and they will be better for it,” his Honour said.

“There’s still some room for theatre in the criminal court, but in a civil trial, lawyers are much less able to display a theatrical ability. Mooting teaches these young lawyers how to perform in front of an irascible or closed-minded judge, and gets them used to arguing an unpopular cause.”

“The Merchant of Venice trial scene and the consequences are extreme. Maybe they weren’t so much in that time, but today they would be considered very extreme. But it doesn’t deprive us of the constants of the themes and the relevance to today’s life.”

Anthony Harper Business Development and Marketing Manager, Lythan Chapman, says that the firm has been delighted to help share the magic of the Pop-up Globe, and hopes that the experience of working with Justice Harrison and the firm’s advisers will have been invaluable to the students.

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