In our world, it is very hard sometimes to be merciful. The choice to show mercy often comes from being in a position of power over somebody. It is a decision no one wants to make. You want to do what is right, but what is right may not be merciful. This is no different in “The Merchant of Venice”. This theme shows up multiple times, although subtly, throughout the play. Characters make that sometimes-difficult choice to be merciful, whether it’s out of the kindness of their heart, or out of desire for personal gain. However, every choice made has its own unpredictable outcome. Often, showing mercy may help one person, but it some cases it also may hurt another in the long run.
In the play, Shakespeare presents the theme of mercy in the first act. Antonio, feeling depressed because of his monetary issues, is offered an opportunity by Bassanio. Bassanio will approach Shylock, a Jewish Moneylender, on Antonio’s behalf and request a loan. A large sum of 3000 ducats so that Bassanio may win Portia’s favor and love, marry her, and repair Antonio’s debts. Bassanio attempts bargain with Shylock, who says, “Three thousand ducats for three months, and Antonio bound” (1.3.9-10). Shylock then says how Antonio is a good man, to which Bassanio agrees. This is a misinterpretation on Bassanio’s part, as Shylock really meant that Antonio is good for the money with his multiple ventures. This sets the tone of Shylock pursuing his own personal gain, knowing it will be paid back in full plus interest. However, once Antonio enters the room Shylock immediately says how he dislikes Antonio for being Christian, and lending money without interest. Which makes Shylocks interest-based lending difficult. The conversation progresses, and an agreement is reached.
Antonio gets the loan and must pay it back on time or pay for it with a pound of his own flesh. Shylock uses his position of power and displays mercy by allowing this loan, thus helping the poor merchant. But in this case, its not out of kindness, it’s out of selfishness and personal gain. He’ll either get his money back or get Antonio’s life. This again backs up Shylocks selfish and relentless nature. The Duke then says to Shylock how he believes that all of this is just for show, and that he believes that shylock will only keep this going up until the last minute before showing mercy and wipe the debt clean. Shylock disagrees, making sure it is known that his intentions are the same and that he intends to pursue the pound of flesh.
Portia and Nerissa enter disguised as men, ready to aid in the trial. As thanks, Gratiano gives Portia the ring that she had given to Bassanio earlier and made him promise to never give to anybody. This angers Portia, and Nerissa tries the same with the ring she gave Gratiano and the same thing happens. Throughout the trail there is a lot of back and forth between the Duke and Shylock. The Duke is trying to understand Shylocks insistence on seeing the debt through, and Shylock is trying to explain that it simply doesn’t matter because he is lawfully entitled to it. Towards the end of the trial Shylock receives what he asks for and Portia enters posing as the sick doctor’s replacement, ready to carve out a pound of flesh off Antonio.
Right as Portia is about to make the cut she challenges the terms of the deal between Shylock and Antonio and winds up winning the case on the grounds that Shylock said nothing in this deal about spilling any of Antonio’s blood. Shylock then backpedals and asks for the original 3000 which he is then denied because of his persistence to have Antonio’s flesh. Shylock is beat and the duke declares that due to a law, Antonio is now entitled to half of Shylocks possessions. The Duke then offers Shylock a show of mercy, only giving him a fine instead of taking the remaining half of everything he owns. Antonio is then asked what show of mercy he may have for Shylock, to which he answers that he wants Shylock to convert to Christianity and draw up a will leaving the rest of his wealth to Jessica and Lorenzo in exchange for is own half to immediately go to Lorenzo and Jessica. Shylock is defeated at this point and agrees. Opting not to show Shylock any mercy, just as Shylock had done to him. In Humiria Aslam’s Journal, “Mercy: A Virtue of consciousness in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice” he points this out by saying, “This similarity in Antonio and Shylocks behavior, if studied in Jungian terms reveals that, the quality of mercy lacked in both. Therefore, both were unconscious of their conscious behavior, adhering to the persona they represent in their conscious mode.”
Lastly, after returning home to their wives, Bassanio and Gratiano are confronted over giving away their promised rings. Portia and Nerissa could’ve chosen to leave the both of them, but instead chose to show mercy on them and offer forgiveness so they could live happy lives together. Again, supporting the theme.
“The Merchant of Venice” doesn’t make the theme of mercy obvious and it is often left up to the readers interpretation of Shakespeare’s work to notice it. It is a subtle, yet completely crucial element in this story and really drives the point home in the end that Mercy may be given, but not always received in return. It also shows that greed has no place in mercy because then it is not genuine. Whether is was Shylocks greedy intentions for revenge and wealth, or The Dukes and Antonio’s desire to see Shylock converted and stripped of his wealth, this lesson is proven true.
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