Merchant of Venice





The idea of mercy is important in the Merchant of Venice because it provides a focus for the contrast between Venetian Christian society and the alien invader, represented by Shylock. Mercy occupies a central position in the trial scene (IV.i.), where the power struggle between aristocratic Venetian society and the threatening force of Shylock comes to a climax. My thesis is that the contrast between (and equation of) mercy and revenge in the trial scene reveals the true nature of Venetian society as insecure, hypocritical and vengeful.
Mercy is clearly of greatest importance to the Christians in this text. It is only mentioned in the trail scene by two characters, the Duke (three times) and Portia, in her guise as the lawyer Balthazar, (ten times). Mercy is significantly never mentioned by Shylock, implying either that he does not believe in it, or that he sees a hidden motive behind the Christians’ insistence that he should be merciful to Antonio. By looking at what mercy means to the Christians and how they use it in the trail scene, I will try to show how it acts as a mirror for their true value system.
Mercy can be defined as kind and considerate treatment that you show to someone, especially when you forgive them or do not punish them. It is a Christian value associated with the New Testament, thus contrasting with Shylock’s Old Testament religion and its image of a more stern and vengeful God. In the first half of the trail, mercy and revenge are contrasted. The Duke appeals to Shylock to be merciful as if he shared their Christian values:
Shylock the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then ‘tis thought
Thou’ll show thy mercy (IV.i.17-20)…
The implication is that demanding Antonio’s death for forfeiting a bond is “strange apparent cruelty” (IV.i.21), unnatural and the world agrees with him. Shylock demands his bond with no other justification than “a lodg’d hate, and a certain loathing/ I bear Antonio” (IV.i.60-61). He tries to justify taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh by appealing to the Venetian’s sense of ownership, equating to their slaves. “The pound of flesh which I demand of him/ Is dearly bought, ‘tis mine and I will have it” (IV.i.99-100). Shylock’s use of strange language and images (line 44-58) makes him appear uncivilized in contrast with the Christians’ talk of gentleness and mercy.
Portia’s speech on mercy brings in the aspect of power, painting a grandiose picture to tempt Shylock to believe he can share his power by being merciful and thus accepting Christian values.
It blessesth him that gives, and him that takes,
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown. (IV.i.183-185)
Shylock’s reply, “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law” (IV.i.202), makes him appear totally without mercy, at least superficially. However, we know that Shylock has little reason to trust Christian Venetian society because he has been abused and reviled by Antonio and others. It seems more likely that by being merciful, he would be accepting their value system and be taking the first step towards assimilation within Christian society. After all, his daughter has already converted voluntarily.
Antonio would have won in court and in society, and could feel justified in treating Shylock with even less respect than before. In other words, Shylock would lose power, and this, in essence, is how we can view the conflict between Shylock and Antonio, as a power struggle. Once Shylock is defeated by Portia’s clever interpretation of the law, we see that he is now at the mercy of the court. It is here that mercy and revenge become equated. Portia tells Shylock that for threatening the life of Antonio his goods are forfeit “And the offender’s life lies in the mercy/ Of the Duke only…” (IV.i.351-352). She finishes by saying “Down therefore, and beg mercy of the duke” (IV.i.359). Both the Duke and Antonio appear to be merciful when they spare his life and some of his wealth, but in light of Shylock’s position in Venetian society, it would appear that they are trying to completely crush him, especially when he is required to become a Christian. Shylock feels he might as well