Is there a conflict between justice and mercy in the trial scene in William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice? Probably, so, but not necessarily in the way many viewers/readers of Shakespeare's play presume. The Jewish moneylender, Shylock, has been verbally abused by the Christian population of Venice for many years solely because of his faith. That he is a moneylender is a product of the history of anti-Semitism to which he and other Jews have been repeatedly and ritualistically subjected for over a thousand years. One of his most frequent abusers is Antonio, who, in his desire to assist his friend Bassanio, agrees to Shylock's terms in exchange for the money Bassanio needs to win the hand of Portia. Those terms, as we know, involve a pound of Antonio's flesh should he fail to repay his debt, and it is the barbaric terms of this arrangement that leads to the court case in which the question of justice versus mercy plays out.
The question of justice versus mercy is a theme throughout The Merchant of Venice. This heavily-Christian society in which the play takes place is very biased against its small Jewish population. Every utterance regarding Shylock takes the derogatory form of "the Jew," emphasizing not the content of Shylock's character but his sin of abiding a faith most certainly not in vogue. Antonio, as noted, is one of Shylock's most persistent critics, those criticism invariably referencing the moneylender's religion. But it is a sign of that moneylender's unfounded faith in justice that provides the play's most paradoxical resolution. Shylock's faith in the concept of justice is misplaced, but he is inexplicably naive regarding that faith, as evident in the following passage from Act III, Scene III, in which he interacts with Antonio and Salarino, and suggests that he will prevail in a court of law:
I'll have my bond; speak not against my bond:
I have sworn an oath that I will have my bond.
Thou call'dst me dog before thou hadst a cause;
But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs:
The duke shall grant me justice.
To which the two Christians respond following this exchange:
I am sure the duke
Will never grant this forfeiture to hold.
The duke cannot deny the course of law:
For the commodity that strangers have
With us in Venice, if it be denied,
Will much impeach the justice of his state;
If these parties appear united in their belief in the concept of impartial justice, it is entirely unfounded. No sooner does the trial begin -- a trial hopelessly tainted by the machinations of Portia and the prejudices of the duke who presides -- than we exposed to the biases that will shape the outcome of the proceedings against Shylock. Witness, for example, the following passage from Act IV, Scene I, in which the court is called to order:
Ready, so please your grace.
I am sorry for thee: thou art come to answer
A stony adversary, an inhuman wretch
uncapable of pity, void and empty
From any dram of mercy.
So, right from the start, the question of justice versus mercy is essentially thrown out the window. The proceedings are so stacked against Shylock that the Jewish moneylender is finally prompted to his brilliantly-conveyed articulation of his essential humanity in the face of unrelenting criticism:
I am a Jew. Hath
not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs,
dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with
the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject
to the same diseases, healed by the same means,
warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as
a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison
us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not
Shylock will not, of course, have his revenge. Portia's intrigues have hopelessly corrupted the proceedings, and the concept of justice has been destroyed. Did Shylock have mercy for Antonio? There's no reason he should, not in the context of the place and time in which Shakespeare's play occurs. The audience, however, especially in that place, and in that time, had only mercy for Antonio, so committed was he to the happiness of his friends that he was willing to sacrifice his life for them. The trial was all about mercy for Antonio; it was never about justice for Shylock. He was destined to leave the courtroom a broken man, with even his beloved daughter lost to him. There was no justice for Shylock, and no mercy for him, either.