Mercy in the Courtroom: How Shakespeare Uses the Law to Influence Audiences

It is difficult to know whether it was Shakespeare’s intent to make his character Shylock in The Merchant of Venice a sympathetic character or a Jewish villain to satisfy an anti-Semitic audience. Clues to this debate can be gathered if we carefully consider Shakespeare’s treatment of Shylock in the courtroom. A conflict of mercy vs. vengeance  and between the spirit and letter of the law become apparent in the courtroom scene of Act IV. Mercy is a central theme to both Christianity and Judaism and is used by Shakespeare to make larger claims about such religions.The idea of mercy and the act of being merciful is about ones spirit and intent. If one acts out of mercy he or she is acting out of goodness and compassion. On the other hand, if you see all situations in black and white and always emphasize reason and logic over emotions and ethics you are unlikely to act out of mercy. If a judge is merciful to a convict he may consider the spirit of the law and decide that imposing the stated legal punishment on the convict is too harsh or will not accomplish the intent of the law or legal system. Conversely, if the judge fails to consider the convicts circumstances or simply wishes not to take them into consideration, he is simply obeying the letter of the law without considering the spirit of the situation or law.

Upon entering the Court of the Duke of Venice in Act IV scene 1, Portia (disguised as Balthasar, a young lawyer) argues the importance of mercy. She exclaims to Antonio, “Then must the Jew be merciful.” (IV, 1, 181) She goes on to elaborate about the importance of mercy: “The quality of mercy is not strained/…/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes/…/But mercy is above this sceptered sway./It is enthroned in the hears of kings,/ It is an attribute to God himself,/ And earthly power doth then show likest God’s/ When mercy seasons justice.” (IV, 1, 182-195) Ultimately, Portia summarizes her speech with her lines, “We do pray for mercy/ And that same prayer doth teach us all to render/ The deeds of mercy.” (IV, 1, 198-200) It would seem that Portia views mercy as the ultimate rule in the courtroom and thus will go about using it to support her judgments. It is not, however, the act of mercy that saves Antonio, but instead a technique we might call hairsplitting. Hairsplitting is a technique used in an argument where one relies on the technicalities of trivial elements of the dispute at hand in order to overshadow the main point.

Once it is agreed upon that Shylock has essentially won the case against Antonio, Portia instructs Shylock, “And you must cut this flesh from off [Antonio’s] breast./The law allows it, and the court awards it.” (IV, 1, 300-301) But as soon as excited Shylock is ready to proceed, Portia declares, “This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;/The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh.’/…/But in the cutting it if thou dost shed/ One drop of Christian blood, thy lands and goods/ Are by the laws of Venice confiscate/ Unto the state of Venice.” (IV, 1, 303-310) While Portia’s point that the agreement did in fact call for a pound of flesh and no blood, she fails to confront the dispute at hand in order to divert attention and win the case using a technicality. No longer is Portia using the spirit of the law, but instead is relying on the specific details and the letter of the law. Portia’s hairsplitting legal argument is what ultimately saves Antonio even though she came into the courtroom speaking of mercy.

While it is evident that mercy is a central theme here in the courtroom, discerning a single religious implication proves difficult. Shylock has brought a case to court seeking vengeance against Antonio. Portia offers an eloquent (and still famous) speech on the importance of mercy. But these acts are not without complication. Portia only exhibits mercy in a ploy to trap Shylock in an agreement where she is then able to defer to the letter of the law to save Antonio. Perhaps the harsh and partisan treatment of Shylock (Portia is not even a real judge yet presides over the case and sentencing) is meant to make the audience sympathetic to the Jew. Yet ultimately Antonio demands that Shylock “presently become a Christian” (IV, 1, 385) if he is to retain his property. Is offering Shylock an ultimatum where he must choose between keeping his property and livelihood or his religion an act of vengeance by the Christians or might it be considered an act of mercy by the Christian characters who are “saving” the Jew and thus offering the Elizabethan audience a happy ending to the play? We as readers or viewers of the play must also decide whether to emphasize the spirit or the letter of Shakespeare’s play. I tend to believe that Shakespeare meant to imply much more than simply how the scenes he created came across at first glance. In writing this post and attempting to figure out what exactly Shakespeare meant to imply, I have decided that if we are to truly understand Shakespeare’s intent we must not only consider the words he authored but also take into consideration the spirit of the audience at the time.

See also “Shakespeare Making ‘Shylock'” and “The Merchant of Venice as Nazi Propaganda” for further explanation of how different audiences may have understood Shakespeare’s Shylock at different points in time.