The Quality of Mercy

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Maggie Smith as Portia–BBC

I just finished grading my British Literature I online students’ responses to The Merchant of Venice. Their words prompted a very long response of my own, which caused me to re-evaluate the “quality of mercy” in light of recent events.

When I get discouraged, it’s teachable moments like this that keep me going. 

Here’s my response:

After reading the responses to the exercises, I wanted to clarify a few things:

Number One– Shakespeare’s view of Shylock is based on white, Christian views of the16th Century, but there are many indications that Shakespeare did not espouse these views completely. The society was inherently anti-semitic, and yet, Shakespeare writes a powerful statement against racial and religious discrimination in Shylock’s most famous speech in the play:

To bait fish withal; if it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies – and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge! The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Shylock said it, but Shakespeare created the character and put those incredible words in his mouth. 

Number Two--Portia tries to save Shylock, but she MUST fully represent the law. I urge students to read some more commentary about The Merchant of Venice or go back and read through the play again, especially the courtroom scene. Portia gives Shylock multiple chances to show mercy, AND he is offered his money back, plus some (Portia is willing to give her new husband , Bassanio, enough gold to pay Shylock twenty times over in order to save Antonio’s life), but Shylock refuses to show mercy because he wants Antonio dead in return for the way he has been treated. Understandable perhaps, but not noble, not admirable, not justified. 

In the most famous passage of the play, Portia begs Shylock to have mercy because the law, that she represents, can only render justice:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant
there.

But Shylock will have none of it and then must face the consequences of his actions just as he was insistent that Antonio pay in full for his. 

Number Three–Shylock does not lose his life, and a portion of his property is returned. It is the duke (perhaps taking Portia’s speech to heart) who spares Shylock’s life. Antonio also shows some mercy by allowing Shylock to keep half of his portion of the money until Shylock dies. The harshest thing, however, to our modern minds, is when Antonio insists that Shylock become a Christian, but in Shakespeare’s day, even this would have been seen as a merciful act, because the conversion means Shylock will not suffer for eternity in hell. Modern readers will no doubt find this analysis unacceptable, but I urge students to see the play in the context of Europe in the 16th Century.

We have a superb modern example of Portia’s idea of mercy, admittedly a Christian view of mercy, in Brandt Jean’s forgiveness of the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed his brother, which has reignited the age-old debate about justice and mercy that we see in The Merchant of Venice

Read about the debate and see the clip here: https://www.npr.org/2019/10/03/766866875/brandt-jeans-act-of-grace-toward-his-brother-s-killer-sparks-a-debate-over-forgi