A study of the theme of mercy in The Merchant of Venice
An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind
Here in Canada, we do not have the death penalty as punishment. Our judicial system shows mercy even to the worst of criminals by sparing their lives. Yet even to this day, in some countries like the USA, the death penalty still exists for some cases. It is truly shocking that we still do not show mercy even though it has been preached to us for a very long time. Even in the days of Shakespeare, it was known that we must show mercy. The poet makes example of this in his great play The Merchant of Venice. One could go so far as to say that mercy is the main theme of the play. He shows his readers many times that for one to receive mercy, one must show mercy to others. This is demonstrated with Lancelot who asks for the forgiveness of his father, with Portia and Nerissa who forgive their husbands after they gave away their rings, and with Shylock who receives no mercy because he shows none to Antonio.
The first example of the importance of mercy in this play occurs when Lancelot asks his father for forgiveness. His father, Gobbo, is sand blind and therefore does not even recognize his own son when he crosses him in the streets of Venice. Seeing this, Lancelot decides to take advantage of the situation by toying with his father. When Gobbo asks him for directions to his son’s dwelling, Lancelot deceives his father and makes him believe that he is dead. This has a hurtful impact on the old man; so, right after making the comment, Lancelot kneels in front of his father and says, “Give me your blessing…” (Shakespeare 82). This shows that even if Lancelot is simply kidding with his father, he feels compelled to ask for forgiveness from him. Gobbo then goes on to help his son get a job working for Bassanio, and their relationship is as strong as ever because he shows his son mercy. His actions in this situation clearly show that no matter how small one’s offense may be, one must ask for forgiveness from the person one has offended, so that they may receive mercy from them in the future.
The second example of the importance of mercy is when Portia and Nerissa forgive their husbands after they come home without their rings. When they got married, they both gave their husbands Bassanio and Gratiano rings and they made them swear never to lose them. However, when the two women come to Venice dressed as lawyers, they are given the rings as gifts for saving Antonio. At that point, neither Bassanio nor Gratiano know that those lawyers are their wives, but they give them the rings they vowed to keep forever anyways. When they come home to Belmont, their wives are there waiting for them so they can scold them for that very reason, but they later on proceed to forgive their husbands and give them back the rings. Portia then says to Nerissa, “Give him this, and bid him keep it better than the other” (Shakespeare 45). This demonstrates that no matter how important it is to them that the men keep those rings, they show mercy in forgiving them and giving back the rings. In the end, Portia and Nerissa get rewarded for this merciful act by having their relationships with their husbands repaired, and they go on to live wonderful lives together.
The third example of the importance of mercy is when Shylock offers no mercy to Antonio, but expects mercy in return when he is put in a difficult situation. The main conflict of this play is Shylock who is owed a pound of Antonio’s flesh. All the people of Venice beg the Jew over and over again for him to take his bond, paid many times over by Bassanio, but he refuses. No matter how much money is offered to the devilish man, all he accepts is to take a pound of the merchant’s flesh, which will certainly lead to his death. Although, after Portia comes in and explains to the Duke why Shylock cannot take his forfeiture, Antonio ends up being the one to decide the antagonist’s fate. He can choose to let him walk away as if nothing has ever happened, or he can choose to take half of his fortune and give the other half to the city of Venice. Evidently, he chooses the latter option because Shylock was ready to kill him instead of taking an enormous sum of money. He proceeds to ask Antonio for mercy, he begs that he let him keep at least a fraction of his fortune. To this, Antonio answers, “thou shall hope for mercy when rendering none” (Shakespeare 135). Antonio is telling Shylock that had he shown mercy to Antonio and taken the money offered by Bassanio, he would possibly spare him and let him keep at least a part of his Fortune. Yet Shylock had absolutely no intention to let Antonio leave this encounter unharmed, therefor Antonio has no reason to show mercy in return. Also, we know that Antonio is not a bad man and he is not the type of person to try to get revenge on everybody who wrongs him. Yet in this situation, his foe was willing to risk anything in order to kill him. This triggers the merchant to forget his merciful ways as he strips Shylock away from all of his belongings. In brief, Shakespeare demonstrates to his readers the importance of mercy by showing that had Shylock shown mercy to Antonio, he might have received mercy in return and would have kept his fortune.
These three arguments clearly show that the importance of mercy is one of the main themes in the play The Merchant of Venice. Firstly, Lancelot asks his father for forgiveness and they later go on to work together for Bassanio. Secondly, Portia and Nerissa both forgive their husbands after they give away their rings, which leads to them keeping their relationship intact through the most difficult of times. Thirdly, Shylock shows no mercy to Antonio when offered multiple times the money owed just to spare Antonio’s life, but Antonio goes on to later take half of his fortune and the other half goes to the city of Venice. In all of these cases, those who showed mercy received mercy in return and went on to live prosperous lives, whereas those who did not show mercy received none in return and their lives were ruined for ever because of their refusal to accept anything else than vindictive justice. As Abraham Lincoln once said, “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.”
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