Last night I saw The Merchant of Venice (with Al Pacino in the role of Shylock) at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The Merchant of Venice has long been one of my favorite of Shakespeare “comedies.” Besides the ever-popular dramatic elements of a success-against-the-odds romantic love story, tangled interconnections of characters, scenes of comic relief, and cross-dressing characters in disguise, The Merchant of Venice also dramatizes the complex dynamic between justice and mercy, which lies at the heart of the Christian religious story.
When I was a child, when Shakespeare’s plays were still routinely studied in school, I remember memorizing Portia’s “The quality of mercy” speech, a court-room plea for mercy framed in the classically Augustinian language of orthodox Christian theology of grace - Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation - and repeating the lesson of the Lord’s Prayer – we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.
How many times have I preached about forgiveness as the core Christian experience – forgiveness freely received, transforming its recipient and empowering one to leave justice behind and become an agent of forgiveness oneself, doing what one would not normally be inclined to do, what does not come naturally, what comes about only by grace? Portia says it all so succinctly!
(For historical reasons, related to the conflictual context surrounding the separation of Christianity from Judaism and going back all the way to the gospels’ characterization of the Pharisees and Saint Paul’s analysis of the relationship between “Law” and “Gospel,” Shakespeare dramatizes the tension between justice and mercy as a conflict between Judaism and Christianity, a problematic which complicates the play, but which really requires a whole separate discussion).