The Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare

Peter Milward, SJ

 Peter Milward, SJ / Issue 1701 / 10 February 2017

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.

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