Merchant of Venice – Quality of MercyGet Your
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During the late 1500’s and the early 1600’s when Shakespeare wrote a majority of his plays, society was structured upon the morals of the Elizabethan era. In order to gain appreciation and avoid criticism, Shakespeare had to write his plays for an Elizabethan audience who would judge the success of his work based on how strongly Shakespeare’s plays adhered to Elizabethan morals. These morals revolved around the superiority of followers of Christianity to followers of other religions, particularly Judaism.
Works such as the Merchant of Venice may seem to today’s audience as anti-Semitic while extolling Christian virtues, or at least the perceived virtues of what it meant to be Christian. In the Merchant of Venice, the Christian virtue of mercy as a “divine” quality seems to be upheld for the pleasure of an Elizabethan audience. However, it seems that Shakespeare may not have fully believed in the anti-Semitic, pro-Christian view of mercy, and may have in fact questioned this view through the form of the actions and results of the actions taken by the characters in this play.
Shakespeare utilizes the anti-Semitic and pro-Christian personality of an Elizabethan audience to superficially laud the “quality of mercy” of Christians in order to please Elizabethan audiences, but underneath in a quite contradicting manner, also question the “merciful” actions in the play. Throughout the play it becomes clear to the audience that Shylock is an outsider to Venice and its citizens namely because he is Jewish, a minority amongst a population of Christians.
Antonio and Gratiano and other characters insult Shylock throughout the play. Solanio, for example, imitates Shylock’s reaction to his daughter’s courtship with the Christian character Lorenzo, saying “‘My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter! ’” believing his priorities would be monetary because he is Jewish (II. 8. 15). Such superficial anti-Semitism continues throughout the play, and becomes integral to the court case in Act 4, where any justice for Shylock is destroyed.
Portia, disguised as Doctor Balthazar, enters the courtroom and brings to the plot, at least for an Elizabethan audience, resolution by lauding mercy in the most pro-Christian sense. In this scene, Shakespeare allows Shylock to essentially become an antagonist to an Elizabethan audience, as he dismisses mercy as he “crave[s] the law, / the penalty and forfeit of [his] bond” (IV. 1. 204-205). Portia, however, becomes the protagonist of the Elizabethan audience, preaching that “the quality of mercy is not strain’d,” and “it is an attribute to God himself” (IV. 1. 182 & 193).
The attribute of mercy becomes clearly allied with being a Christian, and lack of mercy becoming the main trait of Jewish people, as Shylock is the only representative of Jewish principles. Although Shylock is resisting showing mercy in order to demonstrate the power that a Jewish person can have in Venice if he or she stands by law and justice, Shakespeare seems to use Shylock’s lack of mercy to make him more disliked by an Elizabethan audience. Portia cleverly uses the laws of Venice to make Shylock the victim of the case, his violation of which makes him susceptible to losing his life and everything he owns.
Antonio representing the “merciful” traits of a Christian, lessens this punishment, asking that “He presently become a Christian” and “that he do record a gift, / Here in the court, of all he dies possess’d / Unto his son Lorenzo and his daughter” (IV. 1. 385-388). For an Elizabethan audience, this act of mercy is pleasing and satisfactory, as it characterizes Christians as morally sound, converting non-followers to Christianity and assuring the well-being of young Christians. However, to a non-Elizabethan or more modern audience, the results of the trial are less pleasing.
If looked at through the perspective of Shylock, this “mercy” shown by Antonio and the court, is not so merciful in character. In fact, in terms of identity, Shylock is stripped of it, forced to abandon his religion of choice, Judaism, and place the “prop / That doth sustain [his] house” (IV. 1. 373-374)into the possession of his daughter who proclaimed “I have a father, you a daughter, lost” (II. 6. 55). From a non-Elizabethan perspective, the fate of Shylock and the quality of mercy shown by Christians in Merchant of Venice seems too blatantly harsh to parallel Shakespeare’s beliefs.
Shylock’s last line in the play, his response to his predetermined fate is simply “I am content” (IV. 1. 392). Had Shakespeare been fully behind his Elizabethan-pleasing approach to the play, it would seem more likely that Shylock’s final lines would have been more elaborate, and more structured upon recognizing the “mercy” shown by the Christians of Venice. The abrupt and short response, however, suggests that perhaps Shakespeare, like a more modern audience, feels pity for Shylock’s fate, and that in Venice, where Christian white males are superior, Shylock cannot defend himself, even through law and justice.
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A non-Elizabethan audience, like Shylock, and seemingly also like Shakespeare is not “content” with this outcome. Though a form of mercy is shown by the Christians of Venice, the quality of this mercy, through a non-Elizabethan perspective is flawed. Although Merchant of Venice seems like it was scripted to only appeal to an Elizabethan audience, this same script intentionally but subliminally addresses the flaws of a society structured like that of Venice in the play, flaws that Shakespeare recognized and wished to address, even if this criticism didn’t reach Elizabethan audiences and only reached today’s more progressive-minded audiences.
Author: Brandon Johnson
Merchant of Venice – Quality of Mercy
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Read The Merchant of Venice’s The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strain’d monologue below with modern English translation & analysis:
Spoken by Portia, The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1
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:
‘Tis 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 enthroned 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.
“The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strain’d” Monologue Translation:
The quality of mercy is not strained: it drops on to the world as the gentle rain does – from heaven. It’s doubly blessed. It blesses both the giver and the receiver. It’s most powerful when granted by those who hold power over others. It’s more important to a monarch than his crown. His sceptre shows the level of his temporal power – the symbol of awe and majesty in which lies the source of the dread and fear that kings command. But mercy is above that sceptered power. It’s enthroned in the hearts of kings. It is an attribute of God himself. And earthly power most closely resembles God’s power when justice is guided by mercy. Therefore Jew, although justice is your aim, think about this: none of us would be saved if we depended on justice alone. We pray for mercy and, in seeking it ourselves, we learn to be merciful. I’ve spoken about this to soften the justice of your plea. If you insist on pure justice, however, then this serious Venetian court has no alternative other than to pronounce sentence against the merchant there.
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