A ‘Pound of Flesh’ - what we can learn about conflict from Shakespeare



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Normally our hobbies help us escape from the issues we face in our work lives, but at the moment for me the two have an interesting overlap. As an amdram actor I’m currently rehearsing to play Shylock in Shakespeare’s ‘The Merchant of Venice’. It’s a dream role for me but in studying for it I’ve noticed how relevant the themes are for my work in mediation and conflict management. So I’ve picked out three good reminders that Shakespeare gives us about how people behave in interpersonal conflicts.

For those who are not familiar with the story, the Merchant of Venice revolves around Antonio, (the Merchant in the title) borrowing money from the Jew, Shylock. Shylock mocks Antonio’s dislike of charging interest by making the penalty for non payment a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Antonio’s business falters, the bond is forfeit and despite pleas for mercy and compromise, Shylock demands revenge for the bullying treatment he has received at the hands of Antonio and his fellow Christians. The tables are turned when Shylock is told that when taking the flesh he cannot shed any blood as the contract does not permit this. Shylock has no option but to give up his demand and is then punished for threatening Antonio’s life.

The first important lesson about conflict we can draw from this is that the ‘apparent’ conflict issue is the tip of a hidden iceberg. The dispute is a contractual issue but the conflict has deep underlying causes. Shylock is an outsider on a number of levels. As a Jew, he is bullied, mocked and abused by the Christian merchants. But he has also distanced himself from those around him, his fellow Jews and in particular his own daughter. He has an underlying need for acceptance, acknowledgement of being part of Venetian society and performing a necessary role. Aside from these interests there is a fundamental conflict of values. Shylock and Antonio represent the Jewish and Christian religions, which, in the play at least, are conflicting in their values and neither ‘side’ can understand the value drivers of the other. This theme is as relevant today as it has always been – the conflicts around the world pursued in the name of religious beliefs are widely prevalent. So the play gives us a valuable reminder of the importance of looking below the surface to get to what lies at the heart of the conflict.

Whilst the ‘outsider’ theme referred to above is an obvious and much discussed one, an area of the play which is not widely considered is the personal situation of Shylock. Often we find in conflict situations that there is something going on in the life of at least one of those involved that is a major contributing factor to how they are feeling and which affects their behaviour. Issues with a loved one, or a major bereavement for example, can result in emotions being built up which can then become focused on the person in the unrelated conflict. I once mediated a workplace case where an apparently minor incident had resulted in a major grievance running over many months. It was only during the mediation, after the grievance could not resolve it, that it came out that the ‘victim’ had heard shortly before the incident that a close relative had died unexpectedly. He then recognised that there was an element of focusing his pent up emotions on the perceived aggressor. A similar situation is probably part of the issue in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock refers briefly to his wife and it is likely he is still traumatised by her loss which is impacting on how he deals with the Antonio conflict. The danger in workplace mediation is that we focus purely on what is going on in the workplace. Often though it is necessary to explore what is happening for the participants outside of work to uncover underlying needs and interests.

The third theme I wanted to indicate is Shakespeare’s highlighting of the dangers of ‘all or nothing’ thinking. Often in conflict the participants see things in black and white, they are right, the other is wrong. This leads inevitably down the route of seeking redress through a rights based approach – hence the oft heard ‘we’ll settle this in court’. As the play so clearly points out, there is a danger in this approach – there has to be a loser. When the tables are turned, Shylock’s demand to take Antonio’s life puts his own life at risk. He is saved only by the mercy of the court. For mediators consequences are perhaps one of the strongest arguments we have when encouraging participants to work together to find a way forward. The consequence of not resolving it themselves means that someone else will decide if for them and one of them at least will not like the result. Mediation gives the opportunity for them both to come away with a solution they are happy with.

Whether you are a Shakespeare fan or not, the themes he deals with have relevance today. Conflict has always existed and always will. Shylock is an excellent example of a man destroyed by conflict – and therefore a great advert for mediation!

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