Merchant of Venice Justice and Mercy - Literature Essay Example
Merchant of Venice Justice and Mercy
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Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” like many of his other early comedies, strides the strict division between comedy and tragedy, and in so doing, may suffer from some obfuscation or, minimally, complex articulation of the play’s major themes. Scholars typically point to the themes of justice and mercy as being prominent aspects of “The Merchant of Venice” however, these themes are combined with and often conflated with other themes such as those of human interdependency, racial stereotyping and also the theme of the “outsider.” A thorough and complex background of emotional, economic, and hereditary ties provides the play with ample opportunity to explore profound sociological ideas. “”The major theme in The Merchant of Venice is the theme of bondage and bonding. The play deals with all kinds of ties: between father and child, between friend and friend, between master and servant, between creditor and debtor, and so forth. But perhaps the most important bond of all is the one that connects one human being with another, implicit in most of the other types of ties found in this play.” (Halio, 2000, p. 13)
Crucial to the play’s exploration of human interconnectedness is Shakespeare’s use of imagery and symbol. Among the most important symbols of human relationships are the rings,which drive the sub-plotting of the play and find full exposition at the dramatic courtroom scene. “The rings were originally conferred as pledges of mutual fidelity. Portia confiscates them in the name of justice — because, in ‘justice’, ‘all men are frail’ — and returns them in a comic reflection of ‘mercy’.” (Traversi, 1964, p. 43) Portia’s own monologue in Act IV Scene One indicates her conception of justice and mercy with startling, poetic imagery, conveyed by way of highly accomplished blank verse. “The quality of mercy is not strain’d;/ it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath: it is twice bless’d:/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/ Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes/The throned monarch better than his creown” (Halio, 1998, p. 197)
However, the fulcrum upon which the linguistic embellishment regarding justice and mercy turns is the character of Shylock, and particularly as to how these words relate to his fate in the play. When Shylock is stripped of his monies and demands his “pound of flesh” his ultimate conversion to Christianity not only elevates the philosophies of Christian mercy and justice above those of the “Jew” but enacts those same precepts in order to save Shylock himself. “Finally, what motivates Shylock to accept conversion to Christianity as a means of saving his life? For a Jew, the one biblical command that may not be broken is the command not to take any other God before Jehovah. Shylock clearly violates this command, as he has violated other commands in his faith.[…] Shakespeare’s audience believed salvation could come only through Christianity.” (Halio, 2000, p. 11)
The racial aspect of the play’s culmination of themes in the trial scene and throughout the play have sparkled intense criticism. It is probable that, without viewing the play from a racially stereotypical viewpoint, that Shakespeare’s themes of justice and mercy would be less powerfully articulated. “The plot revolving around the pound of flesh preserves the simple and pernicious cultural opposition between bestial Jew and human Christian, or, in theological terms, between the old dispensation of implacable law and the new dispensation governed by the quality of mercy which is not strained.” (“Who Is Shylock?,” 1993) However, many readers and critics will continue to view Shylock’s reception of Christian mercy and justice ironically, thereby offering an alternate interpretation of the play than those who see it as a strongly articulated expression of Christian morality.
Halio, J. L. (Ed.). (1998). The Merchant of Venice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Halio, J. L. (2000). Understanding the Merchant of Venice: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Traversi, D. (1964). William Shakespeare: The Early Comedies (Revised ed.). London: Longmans, Green.
Who Is Shylock?. (1993, July). Commentary, 96, 29+.