The idea of mercy is important in The Merchant of Venice because it provides a focus for the contrast between Venetian Christian society and the alien invader, represented by Shylock. Mercy occupies a "central" position in the trial scene (IV.i.), where the power struggle between aristocratic Venetian society and the threatening force Shylock comes to a climax. My thesis is that the contrast between (and equation of) mercy and revenge in the trial scene reveals the true nature of Venetian society as insecure , hypocritical and vengeful.
Mercy is clearly of greatest importance to the Christians in this text. It is only mentioned in the trial scene by two characters--the Duke (3 times) and Portia, in her guise as the lawyer Balthazar, (10 times). Mercy is significantly never mentioned by Shylock, implying either that he does not believe in it, or that he sees a hidden motive behind the Christians' insistence that he should be merciful to Antonio. By looking at what mercy means to the Christians and how they use it in the trial scene, I will try to show how it acts as a mirror for their true value system.
Mercy can be defined as "kind and considerate treatment that you show to someone, especially when you forgive them or do not punish them." It is a Christian value associated with the New Testament, thus contrasting with Shylock's Old Testament religion and its image of a more stern and vengeful God. In the first half of the trial mercy and revenge are contrasted. The Duke appeals to Shylock to be merciful as if he shared their Christian values--
Shylock the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
... middle of paper ...
...is required to become a Christian. Shylock feels he might as well be dead--
Nay, take my life and all, pardon not that,-
You take my house, when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house: you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live. IV.i.370-373.
To the Christians, then, mercy has different meanings and uses in this trial scene. It is used to try to tempt Shylock to recognize Christian values as superior to his own, to tempt him with the delusion of power if he accepts them, and when he refuses, to crush him and take away all his economic, religious and racial power. This abuse of mercy also reveals Venetian society to be greedy for power, hypocritical in its use of Christian values for secular aims, and vengeful. Mercy, and its uses and misuses, is revealed as having a power far greater than is at first apparent.
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