Saturday, March 27, 2010
The Quality of Mercy
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.
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.
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.
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