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The Strained Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice

At the end of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock gets himself into quite a legal pickle. Unlike many tragedies (and many proverbial pickles), Shylock’s situation is entirely of his own making –due to his rigid adherence to law, not his avoidance of it. 
Though Shylock believes he has constructed the perfect legal loophole, in reality, he has been fashioning his own noose. After doggedly insisting on the letter of the law as outlined in his contract with Antonio, the very legal code he relied upon to legally murder Antonio (by cutting a pound of flesh from his chest), becomes the very vehicle through which he is denied revenge. He not only loses his means of revenge, but is threatened with losing his own life, as Venice has a law by which any alien “seek[s] the life of any citizen” will be executed, unless pardoned by the Duke (4.1.366). Shylock’s fate is grim, highly ironic, and – many would argue – well-deserved. 
Shylock’s imminent execution recalls the Duke’s genuine question to him earlier in act 4, before Shylock is dealt his fate: “How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?” (4.1.89). Shylock, confident his contract is watertight, arrogantly responds “What judgment shall I dread doing no wrong?” (4.1.90). Having chosen to scorn mercy several times in open court, to deny Antonio’s right to have a doctor on hand to offer medical assistance, and to construct a bond that essentially guarantees Antonio’s death, doctor or no, Shylock has done wrong and is charged with attempted murder. Unlike the play’s hypocritical Christians who lecture on the importance of mercy or kindness but show neither, the Duke holds himself to his professed values and straightaway exercises mercy. He tells Shylock “thou shalt see the difference of our spirit / I shall pardon thee thy life before thou ask it” (4.1.384–5). Shylock, facing the full danger of the legal system he fought so hard to have upheld, is ironically only spared by the Christian mercy he so loudly denounced. Following the Duke’s example, Antonio also shows mercy, though unlike the kind Portia describes which “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,” the “quality of [Antonio’s] mercy” is rather strained (4.1.190–1). 
Antonio not only confiscates half of Shylock’s goods and gives them to Shylock’s disloyal (and arguably antisemitic) daughter, Jessica, but Shylock must also convert to Christianity. Thanks to Antonio’s “Christian mercy,” the Jew loses his livelihood, religion, and identity in a matter of lines. It is deeply disturbing that it is Antonio who requires the conversion since early modern merchants “saw a crucial connection between conversion and commerce.” English Puritan writer and preacher Hugh Broughton was so insistent that British merchants would “profit from his labor [converting Jews] that he demanded they assume the financial burden” of his conversion efforts (Shapiro 149). Antonio’s conversion of Shylock is at once theologically, socio-politically, and financially motivated which makes his erasure of Shylock’s identity all the more unsettling.
The play’s final judgment has been taken by modern audiences as unforgivably spiteful – the “last outrageous bit of hypocrisy meant to further torment Shylock” (Mahon and Mahon 210). Shylock’s forced conversion is particularly cruel seeing as it will have little to no impact on his social standing in Venice given that early modern conversions “played havoc with conventional ways of thinking about religious identity.” In Shakespeare and the Jews, James Shapiro identifies three categories of Jews: those who identified as Jewish, those whom fellow Jews accepted as Jewish, and those whom non-Jews considered Jewish (5–6). Shylock checks all three boxes, particularly since he does not actually perform his conversion at the end of the play but flees the stage, visibly disturbed and physically weakened by the notion of converting. Shylock’s life may be spared by turning Christian, but his conversion does little to improve his life in Venice, buying him neither acceptance nor Christian friendship.
Though to modern audiences, his forced conversion remains irreconcilable with act 5’s levity, Shylock has slightly less trouble accepting his fate. When asked by the disguised Portia “Art thou contented Jew? What dost thou say?” Shylock responds “I am content” (4.1.409–10). Given that death is the alternative, it is difficult to call his decision freely made. In making it, however, Shylock accepts that living as a Christian is the best possible outcome for him given the gravity of his charges and the choices he loudly insisted upon moments earlier. While the phrase’s intonation depends upon the actor, Shakespeare’s words denote Shylock’s acknowledgment that he has brought this choiceless choice upon himself by rabidly pursuing a literalist interpretation of the law and persistently rejecting any notion of mercy. Choosing between his death and the offered alternative, Shylock decides to content himself with the latter. 
The ending highlights the tragic aspect of this dark comedy. As a genre, tragedy “shows us people freely choosing how to understand, and respond to, the profoundly difficult circumstances they find themselves in . . . tragedy is committed to freedom” (Holbrook 17). Tragedy puts under a microscope “people choosing what stance they will adopt towards this world and the difficulties and dilemmas it presents, what choices, given the circumstances, they will make,” however “agonizingly limited” those choices are (25, 17). If there were no limits, “there would be nothing to choose between” (17). Though Merchant is not classified as a tragedy, audiences, readers, and “critics since Rowe have laboured to humanize the figure of the Jew, and to think of the play as Shylock’s tragedy” (Drakakis 110). When viewed in this light, Shylock becomes the play’s tragic protagonist (or antagonist), choosing what stance he will adopt from an “agonizingly limited” set of options. Under this lens, Shylock shares more with Lear, tormented by his own stubbornness and others’ hard-heartedness, than his Marlovian predecessor Barabas, who torments others. 
While Shylock may be relatively content not to die, there is no possible reading in which he is content to convert. If there were, one imagines Shylock would have freely chosen to do so on stage; instead, he verbally acquiesces and immediately requests leave, with his next to last line being “I am not well” (4.1.413). However imperfect the ending of this dark comedy is, the stark difference between the endings of Marlowe’s Jew and Shakespeare’s Merchant (i.e., Shakespeare’s Jew survives) speaks to a fundamental difference in the way Shakespeare and Marlowe envisioned a functioning society. Marlowe seems unable to imagine a society without tyranny, ending the play with the same tyrant who began it. Shakespeare, on the other hand, seems unable to imagine a functioning society with it. Shakespeare shares Shylock’s fixation on the rule of law. Unlike his character, however, the playwright knows that harmony is found by dwelling in the moral grey area that law and human nature inevitably produce, and not in the black and white. 
Drakakis, John. “Introduction.” The Merchant of Venice, The Arden Shakespeare, 2011, pp. 1–159. 
Holbrook, Peter. English Renaissance Tragedy: Ideas of Freedom. The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.  
Mahon, John W., and Ellen Macleod Mahon, editors. The Merchant of Venice: New Critical Essays. Routledge, 2013. 
Shapiro, James. Shakespeare and the Jews. Columbia UP, 2016.