The Quality of Mercy and Justice
By Kathryn Neves
The Merchant of Venice has always been a popular choice with Utah audiences. Since the beginning years of the Festival, people have flocked to see the merry misadventures of Bassanio and Portia, Launcelot and his father, and the not-so-merry misadventures of Shylock. It’s certainly interesting to watch. After all, The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s only “comedies” with more sadness than mirth. Why is that?
Shakespeare begins his play with the words, “In sooth I know not why I am so sad—” a strange way to start a comedy, to be sure. From the very beginning, this play is more subdued, more solemn than its hilarious counterparts. Ships are lost at sea, a daughter is trapped into marriage by the will of her father, women dress as men— wait. Maybe it’s not so different from the other comedies after all.
Still, though, you can’t deny that all the Shylock business reads more like a Macbeth than a Twelfth Night. For a villain (if he is a villain) in a comedy, Shylock is extremely bloodthirsty. Rather than taking money or valuables as collateral in his business deal, Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh— “to be cut off and taken in what part of [his] body pleaseth [him].” When Antonio cannot pay back Shylock’s loan, Shylock is adamant that he be able to cut into Antonio’s flesh in a perverted version of “justice.”
Justice is one of the play’s biggest themes; throughout, characters demand and receive justice— and some characters are even trapped by it. It makes sense, then, that the other big theme of this play is mercy— justice and mercy go together like yin and yang, or salt and pepper. The idea of mercy seems to follow all the moments of justice in this play— Shakespeare won’t give you one without the other.
Portia is trapped by an odd sense of justice. Before her father’s death, he made a strange rule— she could only marry a man who could pick the right casket out of a choice of three; and any man that picks the wrong casket has to swear to leave and never marry anyone. It’s odd, but Portia is trapped by it; even though her father is dead, his word is law. We can see that she has every intention of following her father’s wishes. When Bassanio finally arrives at her house, after a series of buffoonish suitors, Portia urges him to wait a while before choosing a casket; she tells him that “in choosing wrong I lose your company.” Even though she clearly loves Bassanio already, she plans to honor her father’s wishes— even if it means she has to lose Bassanio forever.
She holds her other suitors to a high standard of justice, too. When each one chooses the wrong casket— one silver, one gold— she tells them that they must leave her forever; and, beyond that, they can never again woo another woman. Their prospects for marriage are completely over. It’s a harsh penalty to pay, but since they agreed to it beforehand, justice dictates that they have to abide by those rules. In this instance, there’s a conspicuous lack of mercy. We can’t help but wonder how Portia’s father, and Portia herself, could punish these men so severely without any kind of forgiveness. One strike, and they’re out; no more chances for them. Shakespeare seems to be setting the stage with these lighthearted scenes for heavier examples of the powers of justice and mercy.
The most obvious example of justice within The Merchant of Venice makes for one of the most interesting stories in all of theatre. We watch with amazement and horror as Shylock demands his own twisted justice; he demands to be allowed to cut out Antonio’s flesh as a punishment for an unrepaid loan. Throughout act 4, Shylock references justice so many times that we lose count. He demands, over and over again, for his “bond;” that is, Antonio’s flesh. He refuses to listen to any pleas or supplications. Shylock believes that justice is the highest power to which he can appeal. His absolute certainty in the rightness of his cause is astounding to watch: how, we wonder, can someone be so set in his ways that he has no concept of mercy? The duke, who acts as judge to this transaction, says that Shylock is “uncapable of pity, void and empty from any dram of mercy.” This really isn’t an exaggeration. Shylock’s unrelenting sense of justice is his way of seeking revenge on everyone who has wronged him in the past (and there have been many).
It is the other members of this melodrama who continue to bring up the theme of mercy throughout the trial. They beg for it, and they cannot believe that Shylock has none. After all, even when Bassanio offers Shylock three times the amount of money lost, Shylock still refuses; he “crave[s] the law, the penalty and forfeit of [his] bond.” And it’s here that Shylock practically condemns himself; he says, “my deeds upon my own head.” In denying Antonio any mercy, he is inadvertently denying himself any future mercy from anyone.
It’s in this exciting scene that we get one of the most beautiful monologues in all of Shakespeare. In it, Portia explains what mercy is and why it’s important. “The quality of mercy is not strained,” she explains. “In the course of justice none of us should see salvation.” And she’s right. Without mercy to temper it, justice quickly becomes something tyrannical, swift, and incredibly harsh.
When Shylock again refuses to show any mercy, he becomes condemned. In one of the most exciting courtroom revelations in theatre, Portia declares that Shylock can take his pound of flesh— but he cannot take a drop of blood. If he does, his lands, his money, and even his life are forfeit to the law. Now it’s Shylock that is, ironically, at the mercy of justice. And this time, Portia refuses to give it to him. Interestingly enough, though she seems to believe very much in the qualities of mercy, she herself has none to spare for Shylock. So, in the end, Shylock is powerless to the demands of justice. It’s only because of the small mercy of the duke and Antonio that Shylock even keeps his life; beyond that, though, he loses all of his possessions, and, in a particularly cruel punishment, he is forced to abandon his lifelong belief system and become a Christian. In a way, his very soul becomes forfeit to the bounds of justice to which he so fervently clung.
Though throughout the play most of the characters constantly talk about the virtues of mercy, it seems that none of them are merciful enough to forgive Shylock. Overall, the only mercy Shylock receives is being able to escape with his life. Mercy, apparently, is not as easily given as it is taken. Every single character demands justice for others and mercy for themselves.
We can learn a lot from this play; we learn that religious intolerance can lead to hatred and violence. We learn that love comes to the humblest and the most worthy. But most of all, we learn that justice and mercy are complicated. In the end, it’s not really clear what Shakespeare really felt— was justice more important, or mercy?