By Marion Robinson

PORTIA: A pound of this merchant’s flesh is yours. The court awards it and the law authorizes it.

SHYLOCK: What a righteous judge!

PORTIA: And you have to cut this flesh from his chest. The law allows it, and the court awards it.

SHYLOCK: What a wise judge! [To Antonio:] Come on, get ready.

PORTIA: But wait a moment. There’s something else. This contract doesn’t give you any blood at all. The words expressly specify ‘a pound of flesh’.So take your penalty of a pound of flesh, but if you shed one drop of Christian blood when you cut it, the state of Venice will confiscate your land and property under Venetian law.

GRATIANO: Oh, what an upright judge! – Pay attention, Jew. – Oh, what a smart judge!

SHYLOCK: Is that the law?

PORTIA: You can see for yourself. You asked for justice, so rest assured you’ll get more justice than you bargained for.

(The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I, William Shakespeare)

Shylock was a shyster. He was the principal antagonist and Venetian Jew moneylender in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, who doggedly held to the rubrics of an ill-devised contractual agreement that he, with his implacable accusations, had all intentions of honoring even to the detriment of another person’s life and health. I learned of this Shakespearean work eons ago in high school but, ironically, it was brought back to mind only recently as I watched a documentary filmed in the UK about completed suicides among University students. An unlikely association at face-value, but a clear depiction once again, at least in my mind, of art mirroring life.

The film took the form of psychological autopsies which involved conducting structured interviews with family members, friends and health professionals with whom the deceased students would have had contact prior to their deaths. At the end of the 25-minute film I felt numb, despondent and reflective. In my contemplative state I thought about the condition of humanity and the significant role played by institutionalized establishments – created at the hand of humans bestowed with intellect – in second-handedly eliminating the vulnerable among us.


In clinical and abnormal psychology the term institutional syndrome is used and describes the deficits in social and life skills which a person develops after they have spent long periods in institutions such as psychiatric hospitals or prisons. In other words, institutionalized individuals may be deprived of independence – unintentionally or not – to the point that once they return to the external world they are often unable to cope with many of its demands.

My thoughts about this syndrome are from the standpoint of the establishments that exist in society – the institutions themselves – and the dogma that seem to form the mindset or the core foundation on which most operate. Upon close examination one would see the sad evidence that we are living in a world where corporations, companies, organizations, institutions and businesses at all levels prioritize ‘financial statements’, ‘budgets’, ‘breaking even’, ‘bottom-line’, ‘profit margins’, ‘cash flow’, ‘assets’, ‘investments’, ‘net worth’, ‘venture capital’, ‘enrolment numbers’, ‘exam passes’, ‘course evaluations’, and ‘graduation percentages’, to the detriment of human capital.


Just as in Shakespeare’s 16-th century account, institutionalized mindsets rob us – individually and societally – of the ability to identify with the things that make humanity valuable and which ensure the longevity of the species, like care, compassion, kindness, understanding, empathy, concern and mercy. These are traits that cannot be found in the Handbook of Regulations and which may require out-of-the-box thinking. Understandably then is their absence in the business of doing business.

Logically, no one source can be attributed to on-campus suicidality among University students. No one cause can be specified for student drop-out rates, student depressive disorders, anxiety disorders or any other challenges that students have and will continue to experience during their studies. In the same way, no one cause can be identified for employees who experience burnout and aggress towards their colleagues.


However, a progressive organization in a progressive society in a progressive world is one that actively cares – not just in speech – about the well-being of the human elements that forms the core of its machinery, above guidelines, procedures and regulations.

The bottom line is that the issues of life happen – sometimes expectedly and unforeseen. Sadly, if the blue-print of any organization is created from the standpoint of heavy-handed dogmatism, we will always be in mourning for those who have had their dreams exsanguinated for a pound of flesh.

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