I’ve been doing a lot more reading this week that’s been specifically geared towards Merchant and, more particularly, Portia. It really is time (soon, very soon!) to stop reading and start writing. The semester is coming rapidly to a close, and I am having trouble not drowning in the articles and chapters. My thoughts are getting lost in a sea of other people’s arguments, and I’m feeling uncertain about what I have to contribute to this conversation.
Hopefully I will have something to say, and it will hopefully go a little like this. In the very vaguest of maps for the final paper I am envisioning, I am looking to:
- tackle the idea of equity. In a legal sense, what is its history in England?
- How is the notion of equity figured in MOV?
- Equity is (basically) the legal sense of the idea of mercy in this play. It is set in opposition to the notion of justice, but this opposition seems too simplistic. I think this will be the meat of my paper -- figuring out exactly how this tension works.
- If equity is the prerogative of the monarch, then I would like to at least begin considering in the “second half” (or so, ish) of the paper, how this figures into the history plays where the monarch is so central?
Last week, I spent some time with “the quality of mercy,” and I’m really not even close to scratching the surface.
I’m interested in the idea of compulsion in this speech. It begins with Portia’s line “Then must the Jew be merciful” (IV.i.201, emphasis added). Shylock’s answer responds directly to this word “must”: “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that” (203-4). I’ve read a couple different arguments about these lines -- that Portia slips up with the use of “must,” that Shylock misreads “must” as compulsion when really what Portia means is that if Antonio is to be saved, then the only course is for Shylock to be merciful, that the beauty of “The quality of mercy” is that it is completely spontaneous because of this question and answer. The line could certainly be read in a number of ways, but the important argument of the speech is that mercy must be freely given; it cannot be compelled. Whether she is correcting herself or not, Portia is certainly correcting Shylock. There can be no compulsion: “The quality of mercy is not strained” (204). Does this mean that mercy is without strength or power, however?
The “quality of mercy” stands in contrast to “the force of temporal power” (211, emphasis added). Mercy cannot be “strained” or compelled; it is therefore the opposite of forceful. Mercy stands “above this sceptred sway” of forceful, earthly power (214).
Many critics have commented on Portia’s turn back to the concept of justice at the end of this speech. They often suggest that Portia undercuts her arguments about mercy or that she is even vengefully drawing Shylock away from the idea of mercy and insidiously suggesting that he should push for justice. [Got to find and footnote these!] I would like to suggest, however, that she is returning not specifically to the idea of justice but to the idea of compulsion. If Shylock continues down the path of justice, then the court “Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the Merchant there” (228, emphasis added). By impressing upon Shylock that he is using force, compelling the court to act against Antonio, she is offering a reminder of the umbrage Shylock took at the idea of being himself forced to be merciful. It is a final gesture towards mercy, whose quality is decidedly “not strained” (204).
All in the speech points towards ease and gentleness, including my favorite phrase of the play, “When mercy seasons Justice” (218). The meaning of “seasons” here is “to qualify by a beneficial admixture; to moderate, alleviate, temper” (OED, 1d). When mercy moderates or tempers the harshness of Justice, it softens it. It is the “quality of mercy” to do this, “not strained” but qualified, softened, alleviated. Once again, this is the sense which Portia tries to leave us with. She has spoken “To mitigate the justice of thy [Shylock’s] plea” in hopes of softening his cries for justice into a gentler act of mercy.
This week, I used the Applause First Folio edition edited by Neil Freeman.