Monday, March 21, 2016

The Quality of Mercy

Sacchi Green

When you can’t seem to get a grasp on a topic that really deserves to be considered seriously and in depth, who can you turn to?

Shakespeare, of course. By way of Merriam-Webster:

Simple Definition of forgive
: to stop feeling anger toward (someone who has done something wrong) : to stop blaming (someone)

: to stop feeling anger about (something) : to forgive someone for (something wrong)

: to stop requiring payment of (money that is owed)

You know where I’m going with this, and you know I’m stretching a point to equate forgiveness with mercy, but not stretching all that far.  The Merchant of Venice is very much about forgiving a payment, that “pound of flesh” that was put up as collateral for a loan, but it’s about other kinds of forgiveness as well, and about a mercy that includes forgiveness.

Shylock, the Jew who has made the loan, is both villain and victim. He has suffered massive amounts of bigotry and scorn and ill-treatment, some of it at the hands of Antonio, who has been granted the loan to help out a friend. We can understand why Shylock can’t forgive the treatment he and his people have suffered, and Shakespeare even makes us understand how being unable to forgive hurts those who bear a rightful grudge. (I should note here that there are many conflicting interpretations of the various aspects of this play, so I’m choosing an interpretation that fits my needs, while admitting that I am in no way an expert at this.)

I’ll also admit that my main interest in the play has always been the fact that the most impressive character is a woman, Portia, masquerading as a male lawyer to plead Antonio’s case. And what a plea it is!

"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:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre 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 sceptred 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."

Shylock is, of course, unmoved by this, so the presiding Duke rules that his price must be paid…until Portia, as lawyer, says okay, take your pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood, or your lands and goods will be forfeited under Venetian laws. In fact threatening to take a citizen’s life leaves Shylock, as an “alien,” subject to loss of property and possibly even his life. The Duke, possibly influenced by Portia’s speech, pardons Shylock’s life, and Antonio agrees to let the property go eventually to Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, who has married a Christian Venetian greatly against her father’s wishes. There's some level of forgiveness all around, except that Shylock is unlikely to be any less bitter.

I’ve read Portia’s speech several times, and memorized the first half-dozen lines when I was a teenager, but this time I paid more attention to the later parts, and was struck by the references to mankind’s need for mercy and forgiveness from God, which should lead us to show mercy and forgiveness to each other. Which of course echoes the lines from the Biblical Lord’s Prayer I learned as a child; “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” There it is. Forgiveness is essential for us, in the giving as well as the giving. (My own thoughts on the concepts of sin and guilt could lead me widely astray here, but for now let’s just leave it at that.)

Wait a minute, though. We’re erotica writers. Shouldn’t I feel guilty quoting from the Bible here? Will you forgive me if I quote just a bit more from the work that surpasses even Shakespeare as a source of inspiring quotations? How about the Old Testament book The Song of Solomon? Just one lovely erotic verse among many:

“My beloved is mine, and I am his;
    he grazes among the lilies.
Until the day breathes
    and the shadows flee,
turn, my beloved, be like a gazelle
    or a young stag on cleft mountains.“

Excuse me. I’ll be in my tent, not feeling at all in need of forgiveness just at the moment.




  1. Forgiveness frees all parties involved.

  2. I was actually considering using this as my title, Sacchi.

    But I wonder if mercy is the same thing as forgiveness. Mercy seems more akin to compassion--except that it's an action, not an attitude. Shylock could certainly have showed mercy by forgoing the flesh, but still not have forgiven Antonio.

    I also have always loved the character of Portia. Your summary of the plot reminds me, though, of how anti-semitic it really is, and not only in the portrayal of Shylock. Jessica is gifted with the property only because she has married a Christian (and probably, renounced her own religion).

    Sigh. We haven't come very far, though, have we?

    1. One of the most interesting things about the play--maybe about Shakespeare in general--is how he acknowledges the injustice of the treatment of Jews in his time--"Does not a Jew bleed?"--yet still portrays Shylock stereotypically as the villain.

    2. I actually agree that forgiveness and mercy are not entirely the same thing; mercy does not always include forgiveness, though forgiveness is usually merciful. That's why I resorted to the dictionary definition of forgiveness. I figured I could get away with this example because the forgiving a debt issue is also in play here.

  3. Great direction to go with a difficult topic! You've stolen the "run to the dictionary" gambit. :) I've never read Merchant of Venice, which I feel is one of those glaring holes in my reading knowledge. Your analysis here is really interesting. I love your "I'll be in my tent" ending. ;)

  4. The Merchant of Venice is a fascinating play. Great source material for a discussion of forgiveness, Sacchi. What often gets overlooked is that it combines several plots about fathers and their grown (or almost-grown) children. If Portia's rich father was wise to set out very unusual terms for her inheritance in his will (she must marry the man who chooses the right "casket," or box), why is Shylock treated as a villain because he tells his daughter Jessica not to party in the streets during Carnival, or hang out with young Christian men? I often refer to Portia's 2 methods of defending her client (the appeal to mercy, followed by the brilliant use of a technical loophole) in class to explain the difference.


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