In The Merchant of Venice, how is Christian hypocrisy evident in Portia's call for mercy?

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Portia’s famed speech, in which she argues for mercy for Antonio, may appear to be the height of decency; yet it unmistakably disregards Shylock’s Judaism and, later, proves to be hypocritical.

 

Portia begins her speech by stating that:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven

Her argument is set in a Christian context—mercy is handed down from heaven—and yet she disregards that Judaism views mercy differently, as something to be atoned for. Furthermore, Shylock’s own policy of usurance, in which he collects interest on money borrowed, indicates Shylock’s worldview: he does not believe in something for nothing. Such an idea of mercy must appear alien to him. One might imagine that in attempting to persuade Shylock to have mercy, she ignores his own moral and religious positions and substitutes her own; however, this seems at odds with Portia’s cleverness. Ignorance cannot be denied, but it seems more likely that she is appealing not to Shylock, but to the Christians in the audience, who are predisposed to accept her argument. The Duke, in particular, has stated that mercy is warranted:

How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?

Portia’s argument is calibrated to appeal to the high-class Christians in the courtroom: in short, nearly everyone but Shylock. She claims that:

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; [mercy] 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

In essence, she argues that mercy demonstrates power better than symbols such as a crown. While such a thing might be true for one born into power, Portia disregards the evident fact that not all are born into circumstances in which a crown and sceptre are provided as a birthright: such advice is useless to Shylock. Shylock’s power has come from everything but mercy; mercy would undoubtedly ruin his position as a moneylender should he engage in it frequently. Portia’s argument, thus far, strikes at the principles that Shylock has built his life and livelihood upon, with only the vague promise of mercy in return.

 

Portia portrays mercy as superior to justice near the end of her speech:

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.

Salvation cannot be found through justice, as she claims: mercy is the only way through which to attain it. In essence, Portia argues in a court of law that law is of less importance than religious principles that Shylock does not share. And for all of her talk of mercy and compassion, Portia shows Shylock none: she refers to him as “Jew” repeatedly, exposing the hypocritical nature of her speech—she will show mercy only when it dovetails with her own interests.

 

In keeping with Shylock’s policy of quoting the bond literally, Portia finds a solution for Antonio: Shylock may take his pound of flesh, but cannot shed blood in doing so. With Shylock unable to claim his redemption, Portia has the perfect opportunity to practice the mercy that she has preached—and yet, she states:

The Jew shall have all justice;—soft;—no haste;—

He shall have nothing but the penalty.

True to her word, she refuses him the principal—the amount of money that he lent Antonio, with no interest—and reminds the court that a would-be murderer of a Venetian citizen would have half of their goods given to the citizen and the other half seized by the state. She then mocks him, advising Shylock to “beg mercy of the duke.” Antonio offers some semblance of justice by allowing Shylock to keep part of his fortune, on two conditions: that he recognizes Lorenzo as his heir, and converts to Christianity.

 

Shylock’s Judaism, a subject of derision for Portia and the other Venetians, is no longer an issue: he has been forced against his will to convert. Yet he is still distrusted and reviled, for all that; his estate has been forcibly divided up and his binding principles proven untrustworthy even in a court of law. Mercy has been denied him, in nearly every way, and thus the hypocrisy in Portia’s speech is shown.

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The Merchant of Venice

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