University High School
Instructor: Scott Boehnen
Christianity vs Judaism: mercy prevails over justice
Christianity vs Judaism: mercy prevails over justice
In Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare explores the intersecting themes of mercy and justice as they apply to Christianity and Judaism. Mercy is defined as compassion or forgiveness shown toward someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm. Justice, on the other hand, is defined as fair treatment, or equity, hallmarked by impartiality and neutrality. In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare depicts Christianity as a religion that chooses mercy over justice, while portraying Judaism as a religion that favors justice. These two religions clash over their opposing moral views. Shakespeare uses The Merchant of Venice as an endorsement of the "mercy" of Christianity over the "justice" of Judaism, because Christianity holds mercy above all else, including justice and following the letter of the law. However, the Christian understanding of mercy is self-serving; it is a means of escaping justice rather than bringing about reconciliation.
Shakespeare explores the central theme of mercy in the lengthy trial scene. Well aware of his audience, Shakespeare sets the stage for mercy to prevail over justice as the "better" outcome in the trial between Shylock and Antonio. Christians hold mercy as a fundamental tenet and believe that the willingness to forgive a crime, rather than to seek strict punishment, is the will of God. From the outset of the trial, Portia, disguised as the young lawyer Balthazar, works tirelessly to convince Shylock to choose mercy for Antonio: "Then must the Jew be merciful" (4.1.188). Portia seeks for Shylock to show mercy to Antonio rather than seeking justice and proceeding to take a pound of his flesh, as provided for by Antonio's bond. When this fails, she appeals to Shylock's love of money by beseeching him to take the 6000 ducats offered by Bassanio, or three times what he is owed, rather than insisting on following the letter of the contract: "Shylock, there's thrice thy money offered thee" (4.1.235). Shakespeare advocates in the trial scene, and in Christianity, that mercy is the preferred method of resolution.
However, mercy here, is self-serving and allows Antonio to escape his fate under the legal contract that he is bound to under Venetian law. Mercy for the Christians, or Antonio specifically, is ignoring the legal contract because it no longer suits Antonio's needs. Portia, as Balthazar, executes her performance brilliantly so that Antonio, a good Christian, can show mercy to Shylock; the same mercy that Shylock chose not to show to Antonio. One could argue, though, that Antonio was not truly showing mercy to Shylock because he forced Shylock to convert to Christianity, which for Shylock was worse than death. Additionally, the concept of mercy is biased in favor of the Christians. Shylock never takes the pound of Antonio's flesh that he is owed pursuant to his legal contract, yet he is held for attempted murder for simply contemplating fulfilling the terms of his contract. The Venetian or Christian law is not merciful towards Jews, a fact that Portia, as Balthazar, acknowledges when she tells Shylock to beg for mercy: "Down, therefore, and beg mercy of the Duke" (4.1.378). Mercy for the Christians is re-interpreting the law to find the grey areas in order to achieve their desired result. To Christians, mercy is, in fact, justice, and justice punishes Shylock.
Justice is the fair and impartial treatment of all. Justice is treating the Christian, Antonio, and the Jew, Shylock, the same, rather than viewing them as representative symbols of their respective religions. However, that is not what Shakespeare deigns to do in The Merchant of Venice. In fact, he does the opposite of providing real justice; he defines each man by his religion and then delivers justice according to each man's religious beliefs. To begin with, the trial is prejudiced against Shylock from the start. He is the outsider in a Christian world and a Christian courtroom; and as such, he is subject to a Christian interpretation of justice. The Christian embodiment of justice is bending the law to suit the purpose of the Christian, which includes substituting mercy for retribution. According to this methodology, the law ought to be interpreted to suit the needs of the Christian, in this case Antonio, rather than being read as it is actually written. Grey areas are used as necessary to achieve Christian justice. On the other hand, justice for the Jews is following the terms of contract, or bond. If the borrower, Antonio, is unable to repay the loan, then the lender, Shylock, is entitled to be repaid according to the terms of the bond. The Jews view justice as black & white, with no grey areas. Justice is served by following the letter of the law. This Jewish definition of justice is evident in the portrayal of Shylock during the trial. Shylock assumes responsibility for his actions and their consequences and says: "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, / The penalty and forfeit of my bond" (4.1.213-214). Shylock signed a contract with Antonio, and as such, expects that the contract will be fulfilled according to its terms. As a Jew, he looks to the law to provide him with justice. While Shylock might not like when Portia mentions that the law requires him to forfeit all of his money and possibly sacrifice his life, for attempting to murder Antonio, he accepts the law as written, as well as its consequences. Shylock says: "Nay, take my life and all. Pardon not that" (4.1.390). Shylock accepts Jewish justice and does not ask for a pardon from the Duke. Justice for the Shylock is the law, as written, in black and white.
In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare puts Christianity against Judaism by contrasting their very different approaches to mercy and justice. Christians advocate mercy, or an interpretation of the spirit of the law, while Jews prefer to follow justice, or the letter of the law. The Christian view of mercy during this time period is open to wide interpretation and figurative analysis while the Jewish view of justice is narrow and literal in its reading. Justice has no room for figurative analysis; it goes against the very core of the literal reading of the law. Shakespeare writes this play for a Christian audience. His audience expects mercy—it is an important Christian value. Christians believe in the necessity of practicing mercy because God is merciful and forgiving. Jews, on the other hand, are taught to follow God's commandments, or laws, no matter what. Antonio expects mercy from the Christian court; Shylock hopes for justice. Antonio and Shylock cannot see eye to eye on what justice is, because they are both guided by their religious views. Portia, as Balthazar, advocates for the Christian model of mercy; she states: "It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes" (4.1.192-193). She tries to convert Shylock to the Christian way of thinking; that if he gives mercy to Antonio, he will be rewarded with mercy in return. She tries to persuade him further by telling him: "That in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation" (4.1.205-206). Shylock does not subscribe to the Christian belief that he must show mercy in order to stay in favor with God. He holds steadfast to his demand for justice.
Shakespeare uses The Merchant of Venice as an endorsement of the "mercy" of Christianity over the "justice" of Judaism, because Christianity holds mercy above all else, including justice. However, Shakespeare shows the Christian mercy as an expression of how the Christian religion twists the Venetian law to fit the needs of Christians. They find the grey areas and rotate the letter of the law to reinforce the anti-Semitism of the setting. Being exclusively Christian, Shakespeare's audience could relate to this endorsement of mercy and would be comfortable in the belief that mercy is a necessary part of life in order to attain salvation. By making the Christian characters, like Antonio, the Duke, and Portia, the heroes, and the Jewish character, Shylock, the villain, Shakespeare gives his audience what they are expecting during this time period. However, some audience members would have recognized the hypocrisy of their own community even amid all of the anti-Semitism throughout the play.