Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
The principal Christian theme of mercy as preferable to, or tempering, justice pervades this play. In Act IV, scene 1, Portia makes an argument for mercy against Shylock’s plea for his bond.
The quality of mercy is not strain’dIt droppeth as the gentle rain from heavenUpon the place beneath; it is twice blestIt blesseth him that gives and him that takes’Tis mightiest in the mighty; it becomesThe throned monarch better than his crownHis sceptre shows the force of temporal powerThe attribute to awe and majestyWherein dost sit the dread and fear of kingsBut mercy is above this sceptred swayIt is enthroned in the hearts of kingsIt is an attribute to God himselfAnd earthly power dost then show likest God’sWhen mercy seasons justice.
This argument, one of the most well-known passages in Shakespeare’s works, underscores the conflict between the vengeful Law of Talion and the more merciful Golden Rule. Indeed, a central conflict between the old dispensation of Judaism and the new...
(The entire section is 374 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of The Merchant of Venice Themes. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
As in many of Shakespeare's plays, The Merchant of Venice is constructed around opposite value systems or worldviews. One pole of this scale is captured in one of the most famous of the Bard's verse speeches as it is recited, fittingly enough by the epitome of Christian generosity, Portia, during the climactic trial of Act IV, scene i. In borrowed lawyer robes, Portia proclaims:
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 own 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 the sceptered sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.
The speech captures the core of Shakespeare's message, mercy is close to God in both human action (or "flesh") and in spirit. It is love of one's friends, compassion for those in difficulty and a willingness to forgive past wrongs that humanity achieves a humble, reverence for God's will.
The contours of this Christian value system are thrown its strongest relief by the presentation of an alternative outlook on life, and it is through the dark eyes of Shylock that this foil to enlightenment is presented, in flesh and in spirit. Right before Portia's mercy speech, the Duke of Venice highlights the contrast between "Christian" mercy and the moneylender's stance by describing Shylock as "A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch, / Uncapable of pity, void and empty / From any dram or mercy" (IV.i.4-6). We, of course, know this, for Shylock (like Shakespeare's Iago, Richard the III, and other villains) has already apprised us of his hard-heartedness, hateful materialism. In Act I, scene iii, when we encounter the Jewish moneylender for the first time, Shylock discloses his hatred for Antonio and his evil nature in an aside that runs:
I hate him for he is a Christian,
But more, for in that low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rates of usance...
(The entire section is 1724 words.)