Mercy & Hypocrisy in The Merchant of Venice

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      The concept of mercy comes to a head in the courtroom scene in the play The Merchant of Venice. It begins earlier, once rumors are spread that Antonio might have lost one or more of his ships. As the tension grows toward the date that Antonio's loan to Shylock is due, the cries for mercy begin to rise among the Christian citizenry.

      Mercy implies the ability of one person to forgive another, a strong Christian principle that is advocated in many Christian pulpits on Sunday morning. Though this virtue of mercy is often preached, Shakespeare shows that his Christian characters in this play do not always practice it, thus demonstrating their hypocrisy.

      Shakespeare allows his Christian characters in this play to cry out for mercy when one of their own is in trouble. Portia even increases the value of mercy in her courtroom speech, when she equates mercy to godly power. Mercy, Portia states, "is an attribute to God himself, And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice." This is how Portia attempts to get Shylock to show mercy for Antonio and therefore to spare Antonio's life. However, when it is time for Portia to show mercy on Shylock, What does she do? What does the court do? And especially, what does Antonio do? These are all Christians, the same Christians who asked Shylock for mercy. Though, when it is their turn to practice mercy, they strip Shylock of all his goods and worldly wealth. Antonio amends this verdict and, claiming he is being merciful, says he only wants half of Shylock's wealth. The other half is to be handed over to the Christian man who stole Shylock's daughter. To top it all, Antonio also demands that Shylock forsake his religion and become that which he hates, a Christian. Had Antonio been on trial, would he have thought it merciful if he had been forced to become a Jew?

      Shylock, on the other hand, does not see why he is being asked to show mercy. His mind is set on revenge, which he believes he deserves. He also knows that he has done nothing wrong, so he does not have to worry about receiving mercy from the court. It is not until the court turns on him, making him realize that he cannot have his pound of flesh - that he cannot eke out his revenge on Antonio - that Shylock begins to see the power of mercy. He tells the court he will now take the money Bassanio has offered. The court, of course, refuses him.

      Shakespeare points out the hypocrisy in this fictitious Venetian society. The principle of mercy might be deeply embedded in the Christian religion but it is not so deeply set in the actions of the people who cry out for it.

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