Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Quality of Mercy

Next to the phrase "a pound of flesh," Portia's lovely paean to mercy is probably the most memorable part of The Merchant. Mercy, whose quality--as we all know--is "not strained."  I don't know about you, but when I first read that phrase as a high school student, I assumed that it meant mercy shouldn't be  forced, or filtered. You know, pressed through some sort of moral colander.  It actually means "constrained," which is to say, held back or limited. This idea of mercy flowing freely, un(con)strained, fits right in with the Venetians' all-out, full-on, prodigal approach to life. And it stands in sharp contrast to Shylock's tight-fisted, ungenerous ways.

Taken out of context, the rhetoric of the speech is sublime, moving, and utterly compelling. It's one of those great Christian Humanist moments that Will's so good at.  But in context, it's something else entirely--because only a few lines later, the Christians--and Portia in particular--will prove to be vindictive and merciless. Like Polonius's "to thine own self be true" speech in Hamlet, this one exceeds the moral limits of its speaker. Polonius is a sententious fool who uses his own daughter to curry favor with a corrupt regime, but his advice isn't without wisdom. Similarly, Portia's mercy speech reminds us of her own words in Act 1. "I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done," she tells Nerissa, "than to be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching."

A lot of us have that problem, don't we? Hypocrisy seems to be one of those quintessentially human things. It's not all bad, really--one could argue that our hypocrisies represent a (failed) moral striving beyond our lesser selves. On the other hand, it's appearance with no substance. Hypocrisy, as the old saying goes, is the homage vice pays to virtue.

Dressed as the "lawyer" Balthasar, Portia bedecks herself in the somber robes of impartiality. "Which is the merchant here," she asks the Duke, "and which the Jew?"  Many readers have pointed out that Renaissance Jews were forced to dress in a very distinctive way, and that no one could doubt which of the two men was Shylock. So why does she ask that? Two reasons. Her question serves to foreground a major theme of Act 4--that Shylock and Antonio are really mirror images of one another. It also makes her seem like an impartial judge, which of course she isn't. I won't judge by appearances, she suggests. I'll consider this case on its merits only.

A patent lie. She's come to save her husband's beloved friend, and in some ways, her own marriage. Because Antonio's death would forever taint Bassanio's courtship, and cast a pall over the relationship. Portia's smart enough to know that the best way to defeat her competition is to put both men, her husband and his lover/friend, in her debt.

So let's take a look at her Big Moment:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
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 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 of God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
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. I have spoke thus much 
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

Reading this over, I got stuck on that word "quality."  What does it mean, exactly? Once I started mulling this over, I was reminded of one my favorite books as a teenager, Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Do you know this book? Then you're at least as old as I am, and were probably a weird hippie bookworm in your youth, too. Anyway, the narrator in the book worries a lot about the word "quality," but to him it's a moral term, an expression of value and valuation. I don't think it's meant that way here. I think Will means something like "active essence." The quality of mercy is what it does. It falls down from above, from greater to lesser beings. From God to man, from kings to subjects. In order to show mercy, you have to have power. Otherwise, it's just sympathy or kindness--a lateral move. Mercy isn't lateral, it's hierarchical. It moves from top to bottom. Not ethical, but political.

Mercy is also a radical, earth-shaking idea. Along with its ethical cousin, forgiveness, it's what made Christianity a revolutionary movement. A transvaluation of all values, as Nietzsche put it. Of course Nietzsche hated Christianity--but I think he mistook the practice for the theory. (Which isn't to say that he wasn't right--just that he was also wrong).

But who's really in favor of mercy these days? Judging by the news (a risky thing to do, I realize), it often seems like the most religious people are the least interested in mercy. Historically, Christianity has more often followed the teachings of Machiavelli than those of Christ. Machiavelli insisted that power is all about perception, and that, far from showing mercy, as effective ruler must be ruthless.

Bring on the Inquisitors.

What Portia's speech seems to suggest is that mercy isn't for everyone. In fact, only God and His immediate family seem to be capable of it. Kings are merciful once in awhile--but let's face it, a ruler can't be merciful very often. He'd be deposed by his enemies in, like, a minute. Mercy can "season" justice, but it's not a meal in itself.

Mercy belongs in the realm of the spirit, really. The power of the Virgin Mary in Catholic theology is precisely this--she intercedes between God and unworthy sinners. Whispering merciful suggestions in God's ear. Arguing our case, as it were. A bit like Portia, who, as we recall, is still a virgin herself.

My favorite part of Portia's speech is when she points out "that in the course of justice,/ none of us should see salvation."  Hamlet says something similar: "use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" If we were all judged according to our actions, we'd all be punished.

I guess that's the appeal of the notion of karma--none of us escapes whipping in some form or another. But it also seems to me that many of us are pretty good at whipping ourselves. Or other people in our stead...but that's a discussion for another time.

Well, as you know, this lovely speech moves Shylock not at all. He's not susceptible to the lures of rhetoric or the power of theater. No, he just wants his bond. He has it in writing. He won't "yield to Christian intercessors." He doesn't like interpretation. The written word is etched in stone. End of story.

All legal trials are, in a sense, a battle between speech and writing, aren't they? The law as written, and the voice that tells you what it really means. Lawyers give voice to the law--they try to show that the written word is incomplete in and of itself. It needs to the supplement of the voice. Legal argument reminds us that there was once a time, before writing, when the spoken word had power. Communities were bound by oaths, not by documents. And if you broke an oath, you were ostracized. "Oathbreaker" was a terrible insult. It meant that your words were empty. You were incapable of loyalty.

I like this idea a lot. Oaths should be sacred. Now, however, it's all about writing. Even marriage vows, the last faint vestige of an oathbound culture, are just window dressing.  All our promises, to paraphrase Mary Poppins, are constructed of pie-crusts.  If you don't have it in writing, you're screwed.

And sometimes, as Shylock finds out, you're screwed even if you do.

Next: Antonio and his Evil Twin


  1. Hail, holy Queen,
    mother of mercy,
    our life, our sweetness,
    and our hope.
    To thee do we cry,
    poor banished children of Eve.
    To thee do we send up our sighs mourning
    and weeping in this valley of tears.
    Turn then, most gracious advocate,
    thine eyes of mercy toward us,
    and after this our exile
    show us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
    O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

    Pray for us, O Holy Mother of God.
    That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ

    I really like "poor banished children of Eve."

    As you know I represented many children who were sexually abused by priests, and relatives. I remain astounded at the "abandonment" of children by not only those who abused them, but by the others who were supposed to protect them and love them.

    In this tragic-comdey, Shakespeare banishes Shylock and yet slyly reminds us of his humaness, oh what an uncomfortable series of twists--a challenge to our smugness, our Christianity and our humanity.

  2. Yes, I think this is one of his most difficult plays, ethically speaking. It forces us to confront our prejudices, but it doesn't soften the blow by making Shylock an innocent victim. Bigotry is wrong even when its object is heartless and cruel.

    I like your prayer. I like Mary, too--although I always used to wish, as a kid, that she had been allowed to speak. She represents mute compassion, and I find that troubling. As you may have guessed, my relationship to my orthodox Catholic upbringing is pretty vexed. I think that's partly why I became a medievalist, and learned so much about Christian history. When in doubt, research! These days I'd say I'm still a fan of Christian ethics, but an enemy of dogmas of all kinds. Another reason I love this play. It's all about ambivalence.

  3. Gayle--I think this week all catholics wish they were Medievalists. Love the fresh look on the blog. Oh and the writing. I pledge to keep reading. (that is my oath in writing.)

  4. Yeah--the news from the Vatican probably hasn't been so bad since the Medici era. The Church hierarchy thinks it's still the fifteenth century...sad for Easter week. I always loved this time in the church calendar as a kid. Weirdly, I especially loved Holy Saturday, when they covered all the statues. It seemed so mystical. I miss that. But can't deal with politics, all popes after John 23, etc. (Although I might consider going back to church if women still wore hats.)
    Don't worry about sporadic reading--I haven't had time to write (see email for details). Hope to post something tomorrow. Thanks for checking in, baby coz.