Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Quality of Mercy

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.

Shakespeare at school was a real challenge – the language archaic, the plots tedious and so many of the characters uninspiring.

We were lucky as we had arguably two of the more notable of the Shakespearian works - Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice - but even with them we remember the words and the players now for two reasons – firstly an exaggerated fear of the Leaving Certificate and its’ attaching points system and secondly because of the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia which we donned as soon as we received our results from Hughie Boyle and walked out that door.

Questioning my own critical assessments of Shakespeare, and without Brusselsblue and Chelski cogging my essays on the subject, I decided to take another look at the works that kept us so occupied back in the early seventies. Let’s start with the Inter Cert and The Merchant of Venice.

One can’t talk about The Merchant of Venice without immediately focusing on the most memorable character, Shylock. In terms of bang for your buck, Shylock certainly punches above his weight. Research reveals that he was a minor character appearing in only five scenes and having only 360 lines to deliver. Yet his Jewish appearance, his demands for his pound of flesh, and his court performance make him a highly provocative character - readers end up either despising him deeply or felling immense sympathy for him over his treatment in court. Is this because he is a Jew (for sufferance is the badge of all his tribe) or because he is so mercilessly treated by Portia who if the truth is told is the real villain.

Portia wins her case on a technicality, the “exact” pound of flesh becoming impossibility, having failed with an earlier appeal based on Christian morality and mercy. But how can she of all people ask anyone to be guided by Christian virtue when she has entered the court on false pretences - a woman dressed as a man - to “impartially” state the case for Antonio, the friend of her suitor? Honesty and independence out the courtroom window in one fell swoop.

Additionally where was her mercy when the Court forces Shylock to convert to Christianity – a punishment of unthinkable magnitude to a Jew – but then again, as she stated in her famous speech, mercy is an attribute of God himself. Not expected of mere mortals like her, Gods only; and of course, maybe the Jews. A warped sense of standards clearly.

Portia therefore is the truly evil character in this tragic comedy. Anti-Semitic, and maybe racist if we are to drive deeper into the issue of the caskets of gold, silver and lead. A Venetian chosen ahead of a Spaniard and a Moroccan, with another rigged competition.

I’d like to meet with Shakespeare and ask him of his intent, when he wrote the play. Certainly the play appears to cast Shylock as the evil one and subsequent history and its attaching anti-Semitism has made his image more and more reviled. Was it Shakespeare’s intent to join the growing movement of hatred towards Jews at that time or was his devious portrayal of key characters as I have interpreted – a hidden treatise on the injustices and double-standards he saw developing around him? That the problem really resided with the fairer than fair Christian Portia?

Eitherway Shylock’s legacy will live on, the debate will continue. And maybe, just maybe, Shakespeare was dong more than writing a play to retain the patronage of whoever funded him. For the time being therefore the (Venetian) jury’s out on whether he was a clever and cunning linguist or a boring old fart that has destroyed the lives of so many schoolchildren around the world. In other words was he the English Peig?