The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd...."

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Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice has long been problematic, especially since the dawn of the twentieth century. It is now almost impossible to stage without at least implicit acknowledgement of the Holocaust. The backdrop of anti-Semitism creates a case of dramatic schizophrenia. Shylock, you see, is a villain—at least in the strict interpretation of the antagonist role as villainous—and thus creates a world of problems for any modern director of Shakespeare.

Shakespeare was not being particularly enlightened in his portrayal of Shylock. The only real character we have to compare with Shylock in Elizabethan drama is Barabas of Marlowe's The Jew of Malta. While Shylock is rendered with more humanizing brush strokes of character than Barabas, he shares with Barabas all the traits that an Elizabethan audience would expect of Jews: greed, preoccupation with money, and a thirst for vengeance against Christians.

At the same time, it is hard to blame Marlowe and Shakespeare for representing their societal mores. To the Elizabethans, even of cosmopolitan London, a Jew was nearly as alien as a Martian. With the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290 during the reign of Edward I, there simply were no professed Jews in the country to rebut such portrayals. England wouldn't even begin letting Jews back into the realm until the mid-1600s, and only then if they converted to Christianity. Also, when viewed against the backdrop of England's virtual war with Catholicism and the growing enmity between Puritans and the Church of England, the Elizabethan's loathing distrust of those beyond their heterodoxy can at least be understood. The English certainly weren't any more biased against the Jews than their European brethren of the day.

And yet, while we may bring more sympathy to Shylock with our contemporary sensibilities (or guilt, if you prefer), the fact remains that Shylock is a character ultimately written to generate schadenfreude in the audience rather than pity. The glee with which he pursues his "justice" against Antonio, the intractability he displays in refusing to accept even twice the amount of money he's owed, his arrogance and malice all serve to turn the audience against him. Portia's speech below sets him up for the fall to come. How can one expect mercy when showing none?

Despite the cold precision with which Portia eventually dissects Shylock's bond, here she tries dangling the carrot before delivering the stick. The speech also serves as an articulate statement of one of the play's major themes; at the same time, however, it calls the very idea of mercy into question. It can be further seen as a tacit conflict between the Old Testament (an eye for an eye) and New Testament (turn the other cheek), played out in the courtroom. At the end, we can't help feeling that justice and mercy have been somewhat misappropriated by both sides, and the result is an ending that leaves a bitter aftertaste. Such is the problem of rendering a character—especially a Jew—both as antagonist and victim. It leaves us with more questions about mercy than answers.

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 thronéd 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 enthronéd 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.

—Act IV, sc. i

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