The Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare

Peter Milward, SJ

 Peter Milward, SJ / Pope Francis / 10 February 2017

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The quality of mercy in The Merchant of Venice

Shortly after proclaiming the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis referred to the famous words of the world’s great dramatist William Shakespeare on “the quality of mercy.” Those are the words Shakespeare puts into the mouth of the lady Portia, heroine of his comedy The Merchant of Venice. She is speaking to the Jewish money-lender Shylock in the climactic trial scene, at which the Jew seeks to take his legal revenge on the Venetian merchant Antonio.

In return for a loan, which the merchant has been unable to repay in time, the Jew wants to take the pledge of a pound of flesh from the body of Antonio nearest his heart.At the trial Shylock insists on his legal right, even to the extent of preparing his knife for that purpose. Portia, however, who has secretly come disguised as a lawyer from her home in Belmont (the beautiful mountain), while admitting the just claim of Shylock, first proposes this plea for mercy on the merchant.

Thus the stage is set for a sort of sermon on mercy. But isn’t that preaching?And isn’t the dramatist supposed to be presenting a play in the theatre, protest the critics, not preaching from a pulpit in a church? Yes, but if the dramatist wishes to preach a sermon within a play, who has the right to prevent him? Anyhow, he invites us not only to listen to his sermon but also to meditate on his meaning.

“The quality of mercy is not strained,” he begins. But what is this word “strained” doing? What does he mean? Or what does Portia mean? Well, what she means is that you can’t force or constrain a person to show the quality of mercy: it has to come freely from the heart. It has to fall like the rain from heaven, or as Shakespeare puts it in his poetic, prophetic manner, “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath.” There at once one is brought into the land of the Bible – to the sapiential Book of Ecclesiasticus, where the reference is precisely to Mercy (35:25), to the canticle of Moses in Deuteronomy, where the reference is to Wisdom (32:2, cf. also Isaiah 4:6), and to the words of Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount, where the reference is to the Love of God (Mt 5:45).

Then, Portia continues, “It is twice blessed,/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It would certainly be a blessing on poor Antonio, to be forgiven his debt, but it would also be a blessing on Shylock, in forgiving him. It is as Jesus says, in words recorded in none of the Gospels but quoted by St Paul in Acts, where greater importance is given to the gift, “It is more blessed to give than to receive!” (Acts 20:35)

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