In the interest of balance, therefore, I've done some free-writing on "The quality of mercy" from Merchant with some pointed questions at the end thinking towards 2 Henry VI.
On a simplistic level, in the quality of mercy speech, the text is pitting the notions of mercy and justice against each other. They feel at first like opposites, but they are not entirely mutually exclusive concepts. Although Portia suggests that if we proceed exclusively “in the course of Justice”, mercy is not possible, she also suggests that it is indeed possible, even desirable, for mercy to attenuate justice: “when mercy seasons Justice” (IV.i.195). This is after all what she is arguing.
Mercy also is seated in a power relationship. Mercy is offered to and begged by those in a position of weakness. Antonio hopes for mercy; he is entirely in Shylock’s power. Portia acknowledges this relationship: “‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest” (186). Those who can offer mercy have power over those who seek it. Mercy is most powerful in the hands of the most powerful. It places spiritual power in the hands of those who already possess earthly power, most notably, of course, “The throned Monarch.” Mercy is the prerogative of kings, or rather when kings exercise mercy it has a more powerful effect than when a commoner does. Perhaps Portia hopes to sway Shylock with this idea of kingly power?
In this speech, Portia clearly argues for the preeminence of mercy. It is above all the other symbols of power the king possesses: his crown and scepter: “But mercy is above this scepter’d sway” (191). Although crown and scepter are the visible symbols which identify the king’s position and power, they are less significant. If the king shows mercy, he shows himself to be beyond “temporal power” (188) and more “likest God’s” (194). A crown, a scepter, a throne, awe, majesty, dread, and fear are also subject to the power of the divine, which is specifically identified not with Justice but with mercy.
It is worth noting that Portia herself does not take on the power of distributing mercy. She deflects it to the Duke -- the seated monarchical power in Venice. “Down and beg mercy of the duke.” Antonio becomes conflated in this position as well since Shylock’s wealth is to be split between the treasury of Venice (represented by the Duke) and Antonio. This is where I become frustrated by arguments of Portia’s “con.” I don’t see her as acting entirely out of self-interest. If she were, she could take Bassanio’s suggestion that she “Wrest once the Law to your authority” (213). The law must take precedence. Portia is here, then, identified with the law. The law itself is identified with justice. Mercy is seated in the human (divine?) figure of the monarch. If Portia speaks for the law, then mercy is not her prerogative.
Looking to the early histories (2 Henry VI in particular), what then do we see as the king’s relationship to the law? In the courtroom of Merchant, the figure of Portia seems to separate the voice of the law from the voice of mercy, which is the voice of the monarch. The voice of King Henry VI, however, is weak. He seems strongest when banishing Suffolk (unmercifully?), yet this is at the force of Warwick and the commons. What is the king’s relationship with justice and equity? Is he unjust in the hearing of accusations against Gloster? Is he just in his banishment of Suffolk? Where does Henry exercise mercy? Although it feels like he preaches it, where does he enact it?
**Line numbers are from Bevington, Complete Works, 4th edition. Capitalizations are preserved from First Folio.