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Justice and Mercy: The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is a difficult play to watch. Unless extreme liberties are taken with the script, the bard and his favored characters wind up appearing as distasteful anti-Semites. (I am not arguing here for tasteful anti-Semites.) The recent production by the Heart of American Shakespeare Festival, their first ever indoor, non-summer production, made a solid attempt to humanize Shylock and distance itself from the embrace of the prevailing attitudes of 1600, but the sour taste remained. The two most sympathetic characters, Bassanio and Antonio, clearly view Shylock and all Jews as something less that fully human, and the turnabout of justice in the culminating courtroom scene, when Shylock quickly moves the cusp of his bloody revenge to the loss of everything he held dear, rings very harshly in the 21st century ear when the Duke decrees that Shylock must convert to Christianity. It is this attitude that keeps an otherwise tightly constructed and satisfying play from appearing on the stage more often.

If the Christian reader or watcher of this play can get past the nastiness inherent in the story, another, more essential, theme rewards the attention. Rather than focusing on the cast of mostly unpleasant Christians and uniformly unpleasant Jews, one can look at the two forces at work in the play’s denouement. The Merchant of Venice is, at its heart, a play about justice and mercy.

A key to understanding this dichotomy lies in the inscription on the silver casket in the test Portia’s deceased father established to select her husband. The three caskets are read by the first suitor sufficiently daring to make a choice: the prince of Morocco.

The first, of gold, who this inscription bears:
“Who chooseth me shall gain what many men desire.”
The second, silver, which this promise carries:
“Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.”
This third, dull lead, with warning all as blunt:
“Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.”
How shall I know if I do choose the right?

The silver casket promises “as much as he deserves,” yet time after time in this play, characters prosper most when they do not get what they deserve. The key character who avoids the penalty he deserves is Antonio. In arrogance and foolish confidence, he borrows money from Shylock, agreeing to give a pound of flesh if he fails to repay the loan. Antonio’s risk comes simply to grant Bassanio money with which to impress Portia. Had Bassanio simply waited until Antonio’s ships arrived, then the matter would have been simple, but instead the men engage in a foolish loan. Although Bassanio protests at allowing his friend to put himself at hazard, he could have easily refused to spend the money and ensure that the loan could be repaid. Had he done so, he would have been a more virtuous person but lead to a duller play.

In the courtroom scene, Antonio does not get what he deserves, preserving his life. Shylock, on the other hand, deserves the pound of flesh, although why he would want it we cannot guess. Indeed, Shylock is allowed to take the flesh, but is warned not to shed any blood in the process. It is as if Portia asks Shylock, “Do you really want the letter of the law?” and then demonstrates that he truly doesn’t want what he deserves.

Both Bassanio and Gratiano deserve, according to the letter of their promise, severe punishment for allowing themselves to part with their rings. Portia uses her possession of the ring to gently taunt her husband briefly, but in the end he does not receive the outcome that he deserves.

By the end of the play, the message on the leaden casket is largely forgotten, yet that message is at the heart of a Christian reading of the play. “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath,” the box reads. What separates Shylock and the two would-be suitors from the other characters in this play is that these men seek strictly to gain, while all of the others, with all of their faults, have it within them to give, to sacrifice.

If we can read past the anti-Semitism of 400 years ago, The Merchant of Venice provides a sort of parable of grace. Happily, despite pride, arrogance, greed, envy, anger, lust, and gluttony, the person living in grace need not endure what he deserves.

Posted in English Literature, Renaissance.

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