Portia’s quality of mercy is strained

The quality of mercy is not strain’d.

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.

In one of William Shakespeare’s most famous speeches from The Merchant of Venice, Portia attempts to persuade Shylock of the importance of mercy over the blind pursuit of justice, in the hope that he will relinquish his “just” demand for a pound of flesh and accept the offer of double the money he loaned to the beleaguered Antonio.

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

All very noble, as we might expect from a young noblewoman, but the first point to make here is that the whole speech stems from an act of deceit. In order make her plea for mercy, Portia first had to disguise herself as a male lawyer and fabricate a letter of introduction so that she could attend the trial and confront Shylock directly.

This might be forgiven considering the urgent and life-threatening situation at hand, but it soon becomes apparent that Portia is not really concerned with mercy but rather with punishment. While touting mercy as “an attribute to God himself,” Portia also makes it clear to Shylock that, according to law, he has a cast iron case and that his demand is just.

Shylock is of course delighted and demands his pound of flesh as agreed in Antonio’s bond for failure to repay the 3,000 ducats owed. Shylock’s refusal to grant mercy seems excessive, even vindictive, but it stems from the fact that for many years he has been routinely taunted and abused by the arrogant business-owner Antonio, who, while vilifying Shylock, demands his money-lending services.

Signor Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

(For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe).

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own. 

In another memorable speech, Shylock states that if he is cruel and vengeful, it is because the Christian community of Venice has taught him to be so.

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 villany you

teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I

will better the instruction.

After rejecting a final plea for mercy, Shylock is granted his right to a pound of flesh. But just as he is about to take his revenge, Portia pulls the rug from under his feet. She has known all along that the scales of justice in Venice are not evenly balanced when it comes of matters of Jews and Christians, and uses the discriminatory law bring Shylock down.

Tarry a little; there is something else.

This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;

The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh:’

Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;

But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed

One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods

Are, by the laws of Venice, confiscate

Unto the state of Venice.

Realising he has been tricked, Shylock asks for the return of his principal but even that is denied him. As Shylock is about to leave the court in disgust, Portia sticks the knife in again.

Tarry, Jew:

The law hath yet another hold on you.

It is enacted in the laws of Venice,

If it be proved against an alien

That by direct or indirect attempts

He seek the life of any citizen,

The party ‘gainst the which he doth contrive

Shall seize one half his goods; the other half

Comes to the privy coffer of the state;

And the offender’s life lies in the mercy

Of the duke only, ‘gainst all other voice.

In which predicament, I say, thou stand’st;

For it appears, by manifest proceeding,

That indirectly and directly too

Thou hast contrived against the very life

Of the defendant; and thou hast incurr’d

The danger formerly by me rehearsed.

Down therefore and beg mercy of the duke.

The mercy offered by the Duke of Venice is to spare Shylock’s life but only on condition that he convert to Christianity. A final insult to a broken man, as earlier in the play Shylock’s only daughter had run off with a Christian man and converted to Christianity. Utterly defeated, Shylock leaves the courtroom never to been seen again.

The Merchant of Venice has often been denounced as anti-Semitic because of its depiction of Shylock. But as Aviva Dautch points out in her essay A Jewish reading of The Merchant of Venice, such simplistic judgements are redundant, and things are not always as they appear.

Shakespeare was writing 300 years after the Jews had been expelled from England under the order of Edward I in 1290. It is very unlikely that he would have known any Jewish people personally and his only reference to or understanding of Judaism would have come from popular English culture. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta, written a few years earlier, was probably one of Shakespeare’s influences but there would have been plenty of other negative material for him to draw on as well. English culture was infused with anti-Semitic fallacies, such as the blood libel, which asserts that Jews used the blood of Christian children in their rituals. The idea of the blood thirsty Jew is central to the plot and blood libel is clearly referenced in the Venetian law cited by Portia prohibiting Jews from shedding Christian blood.

However, Shakespeare does not portray Shylock as a simple caricature of the kind seen in Nazi propaganda. He is a well-rounded and complex character, no different from any other human being. Indeed, when Portia first enters the courtroom, she cannot immediately tell who is the plaintiff and who is the defendant. In some ways, he is more sympathetic than many other characters in the drama who are driven by greed, vanity, self-interest and the desire for vengeance.

If anything, Shylock’s character is there to make plain the hypocrisy of Christian values and Christian society, or indeed any religion or society in which selective teachings and double standards are accepted without question.

Portia is often seen as the hero of the drama but throughout the play she is cunning, manipulative and dishonest, even tricking her own husband into breaking a promise to her so that she could later chastise his inconstancy.

Returning to her speech on the quality of mercy, we can see just how empty Portia’s words really are. Mercy, she says:

‘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.

Her actions towards Shylock however blatantly demonstrate the force of temporal power and are completely devoid of mercy.

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