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What “The Merchant of Venice” Has to Say about Justice

(From the Jewish Chronicle Archive/Heritage-Images)

“Just as it was in Shakespeare’s time, the questions of justice, mercy, and society remain as relevant as ever before, and we have much to learn from the great bard of Anglodom.”

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s grandest comedies standing alongside the Taming of the Shrew and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, notwithstanding As You Like It and Twelfth Night. While it is much easier now to transform the Merchant of Venice into a tragedy (where the crude “comedy” of modernity appears in implicit ridicule and hypocritical exposé of the now truncated Christian characters), to do so strips the play of its power and insight in contrasting legalistic justice and merciful forgiveness. These two themes reveal to us two polar opposite worlds, as well as Shakespeare’s passionate plea for the world of forgiveness instead of the world of strict justice, which reminds us of the Greek understanding of retributive punishment. Just as it was in Shakespeare’s time, the questions of justice, mercy, and society remain as relevant as ever before, and we have much to learn from the great bard of Anglodom.

Like the poets of antiquity, the Troubadours of France, and the poets of the late Renaissance, Shakespeare is preoccupied with the theme of love (and how it is often contrasted with politics). While the poets of old often found love in the form of struggle, especially in the context of war where love becomes the single refuge and respite from the chaotic storm of bloodshed, part of the Shakespearean revolution was to find the struggle for love in the adventure and misfortune of life itself (however mundane or exciting). Here, the Merchant of Venice undeniably shines as the struggle for love—specifically between Portia and Bassanio—is threatened by the turbulence of misfortune, revenge, and the legalities of justice. But love, in this play, is secondary to the thematic deconstruction of the strict legality of justice. Shakespeare, thus, is exploring the question of whether love can flourish in a world of dog-eat-dog justice.

It is important to remember that traditional comedy was a dramatic form that began in unhappiness and ended in happiness. Comedy was not about cheap laughs (to distract us from the daily grind of modern industrial life) at the expense of the target of ridicule (like most contemporary insult comedy is today). Rather, it was principally concerned with the struggle for happiness to manifest itself in a cruel, cold, and often dark world. The Merchant of Venice sets the somber tone of sadness with the weariness of Antonio (likely over losing his camaraderie with Bassanio): “In sooth I know not why I am so sad./It wearies me, you say it wearies you.”

The restlessness of Antonio, whose “mind is tossing on the ocean,” is subsequently contrasted with the hopeful love of Bassanio and Portia—prefigured for us when Bassanio exults, “In Belmont is a lady richly left;/And she is fair and, fairer than that word,/Of wondrous virtues. Sometimes from her eyes/I did receive fair speechless messages./Her name is Porta.” From the onset of the play, Shakespeare tips his hat to us; he begins the play in an atmosphere of unease and restlessness but also prefigures the hopeful end in marriage—an image that Shakespeare often deals with and can be found in Henry V, Richard III, and The Tempest, among other plays.

While Shakespeare introduces us to the lead characters and prefigures others, the sudden emergence of Shylock is not previously hinted at and his appearance and subsequent development in the play help pry the worlds of justice and mercy apart. As we know, Shylock is a Jew and a usurer—he has loaned Bassanio three thousand ducats for him to help court Portia (as we later learn, Bassanio has lost his estate and lives in a relative poverty compared to other high lords and merchantmen in Venice). Shylock is a merciless exploiter of his customers, seeing them not as soulful persons but mere bonds and pieces of paper he has contracted with. After being introduced to Shylock he quickly makes an aside when learning that Bassanio’s benefactor is Antonio, “How like a fawning publican he looks./I hate him for he is a Christian;/But more, for that in low simplicity he lends out money gratis, and brings down/The rate of usance here with us in Venice…Cursed by my tribe if I forgive him.”

Thus, the stage, as it were, is set for the conflict between the natural desires for (vengeful) justice and the mercy of forgiveness.

We learn that Antonio and Shylock have a long and tangled history together. Antonio treats Shylock poorly—even cruelly—but also rescues Shylock’s hapless victims from his gripping legalism which adds to Shylock’s venom against Antonio. Shylock’s animosity toward Antonio is, as the famous “Hath not a Jew Eyes?” speech reveals, all too natural. We all share this fallible human condition with a dark tendency for resentment and want for revenge.

Whenever Shakespeare inserts an aside into his plays—most visibly manifested in plays like Richard III and Hamlet—we learn the true motives and thoughts of the characters. When Shylock says he hates Antonio and that he will be cursed if he forgives the Christian Venetian merchant, Shylock really means it. He has no veil to hide his innermost thoughts and desires. Shylock’s aside reveal the totality of his psychology.

Yet, in this aside, Shakespeare also begins to foreshadow the need for forgiveness and how forgiveness heals the ruptured world of legalistic justice, hate, and revenge. Indeed, forgiveness and mercy—which are themes tied together throughout the play just as love and joy are—are the most commonly recurring themes spoken of throughout the play. Earlier, Portia had spoken of the value of forgiveness when speaking of the Monsieur Le Bon—one of her many potential suitors. Thus, the stage, as it were, is set for the conflict between the natural desires for (vengeful) justice and the mercy of forgiveness.

The Merchant of Venice explores the worlds of strict justice and merciful forgiveness. Justice, in the play, carries an overture of hypermasculinity with its insistence on the legality of technicality and desire for harm. Mercy, by contrast, carries an overture of the feminine and the need to set aside one’s desires in a spirit of sacrificial giving as revealed by Portia (and, interestingly enough, also by Bassanio).

In fact, the test of the suitors to win Portia also reflects this masculine-feminine division. The Prince of Morocco chooses the gold casket because it promises all that “men desire,” and the prideful Prince of Aragon chooses the silver casket because he believes himself meritoriously deserving Portia’s heart in marriage: “Who chooseth me shall get as much as he deserves.” In both cases, the Prince of Morocco and Prince of Aragon see marriage as a contractual rite for their desires; as such, both fail to see the need for sacrifice in marriage: “Who chooseth me must give and hazard all he hath.” It is only Bassanio, who has an aura of the feminine through his compassion, friendliness, and willingness to sacrifice (perhaps most pertinently because of his courtship of Portia) who chooses correctly. Portia gives Bassanio her ring as the visible sign of their love and marriage; Portia also advises Bassanio to aid Antonio in his time of need.

With Antonio’s ships having been struck with misfortune overseas, Shylock pounces on both with his strict insistence on the justice owed to him and a desire to now harm Antonio over his past grievances and affairs. Antonio begs for mercy. Shylock scoffs and brushes aside Antonio’s pleas. The movement to the dramatic court scene is nigh.

Shakespeare’s great parody of justice—and his criticism of the legality of justice and the dark hole that it digs—comes into view during the infamous court scene. Shylock insists that he secure his bonds and oaths made with Antonio. Antonio insists on mercy. The Duke of Venice also pleads for some mercy, “But touched with human gentleness and love,/Forgive a moiety of the principal,/Glancing an eye of pity on his losses,/That have of late so huddled his back” but ultimately abdicates his responsibility to the Doctor of Laws who, it turns out, is none other than Portia.

That Portia enters the public world of men disguised as a man reveals the hypermasculine legalism of the justice system and offers Shakespeare’s subtle critique of it. Punishment—and the “letter of the law”—holds sway. The masculine desire for harm is, Shakespeare is saying, cruel. Thus Portia, a woman, offers a heartfelt plea for mercy in one of the most universally celebrated Shakespearean speeches:

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there.

Moreover, Portia’s plea for mercy evokes Deuteronomy 32, a subtle nod to the qualities of mercy deep within the Jewish religion, “My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass.” Portia’s plea, therefore, also calls forth the best in Shylock’s committed Judaism to overcome the mere letter of the law and see the spirit which the law itself is meant to foster and promote.

In a brilliant sequence, Shakespeare lays bare for us the limits of justice and the futility of justice in providing for the so-called just society.

However, Portia’s plea for mercy does not crack the hardened heart of Shylock. Consequently, Portia becomes a man, so to speak, in resorting to the technicalities of legalism to break Shylock and make him beg for mercy just as he made Antonio and so many others beg for mercy. When Bassanio arrives and offers to pay off, thrice over, the debt owed the Shylock, an ensuing quibble breaks out over “the pound of flesh” that was stipulated in the bond. Portia reads the bond literally through the letter of the law; Shylock may take his “pound of flesh” but not a drop of blood because blood was not stipulated. With that Shylock is cornered. Portia further enters this manly world of strict legalistic justice to bring forth an old law in Venice wherefrom a foreigner intending to kill a Venetian forfeits one half of his belongings to the intended victim and one half to the state.

Portia’s delving deeper into legalistic justice, what the Greeks called tisis (retributive justice) reveals for us the absurdities and darkness of obsessive justice. The justice of the law only sinks us deeper in the abyss. There can be no reconciliation through the strict following of the law. Justice has all condemned (as Portia reminded everyone in her speech).

In a brilliant sequence, Shakespeare lays bare for us the limits of justice and the futility of justice in providing for the so-called just society. Justice leaves us blinded; the insistence on justice, as reflected by Shylock and as parodied by Portia, turns us all into ravenous animals in a fight against each other that ends in destruction. Indeed, this is what was entailed by Gratiano when he spoke to Shylock about how Shylock’s insistence on the letter of the law would lead him to “waver in [his] faith” and “hold opinion with Pythagoras/That souls of animals infuse themselves/Into the trunks of men. Thy currish spirit/Governed a wolf who, hanged for human slaughter,/Even from the gallows did his fell soul fleet,/And whilst thou layest in thy unhallowed dam,/Infused itself in thee; for thy desires/Are wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous.”

It is the court scene where Shakespeare mocks and deconstructs the hollowness of justice. The justice demanded by Shylock is merciless. “I crave the law!” as Shylock says. But the reflections on legalistic justice making us “wolvish, bloody, starved, and ravenous” applies to the Christians as much as it does to Shylock; here Shakespeare deconstructs the constant failures (as he also does through Shylock’s eloquent speech “Hath not a Jew eyes”) of Christians to live up to their high ideals of mercy and forgiveness. What shall win in this great contest: merciful forgiveness or the retributive justice demanded by the letter of the law that we all stand guilty before? Portia’s speech reminds us we are all guilty, “Though justice be thy plea, consider this:/That in the course of justice none of us/Should see salvation.”

In the midst of this storm, we must remember that the beautiful marriages of Lorenzo and Jessica and Portia and Bassanio have been disturbed by the misfortunes now plaguing Antonio, Shylock, and Bassanio. Their misfortunes extend beyond themselves and impact many others. The world of retributive justice disturbs the harmony of marriage, love, and joy. With that world interrupted, how can love be restored and reconciled to the “naughty world?” The answer, of course, is through mercy.

The reality of merciful forgiveness restoring the world to right relationships is how the play concludes. True, Shylock now begs for mercy as he made Antonio and others beg for mercy; but mercy is granted, and he is reborn through his conversion to Christianity. (Admittedly implying, here, that Judaism is the religion of strict justice whilst Christianity is the religion of mercy.) While sensitive to modern audiences, we must remember the power of this scene and the deconstruction of justice Shakespeare had in mind when he composed his work. Having just laid bare the insufficiencies of justice—and the need for mercy to win the hearts of all—it would have been natural for the Christian audience to want revenge against Shylock for his malevolence toward Antonio. But this would have pulled us right back into the abyss we were climbing out of. The return to the abyss through the demands of tisis is not what Shakespeare gives us.

The mercy extended to Shylock—and his conversion—is meant to be scandalous. The conversion of Shylock breaks the normative expectations of the audience and the audience’s desire for retribution; it also exposes the venomous shortcoming of the audience in how it would have wanted to deal with Shylock due to its own bigotry and prejudices. Mercy wins out, as the Duke somewhat calculatedly states, “That thou shalt see the difference of our spirit/I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.” Furthermore, the fact that such merciful forgiveness is extended to a minority and malcontent—like Shylock—also tells us much about Shakespeare. Shakespeare is literally calling for mercy to be extended to minorities and malcontents, who often suffer the full force of legalistic justice from an unempathetic society. This appeal for mercy to the minority and malcontent—dare we remember—is an appeal found in the late sixteenth century.

In a lighter and more comedic vein, the ending of The Merchant of Venice reinforces the need for merciful forgiveness which we just witnessed in dramatic fashion in the fourth act. While Lorenzo and Jessica flirtatiously play with each other in Belmont near a garden (witness, here, the imagery and language of fertility, love, and serenity), Bassanio returns to make good his life with Portia. However, Bassanio had given away the ring that Portia had given him as the sign of their marriage. Bassanio now pleads for forgiveness before Portia. In order for marriage—for love—to endure, forgiveness (as Portia now long ago said in the first act of the play) must triumph. And triumph it does.

When Portia forgives Bassanio and reveals herself to have been the Judge all along, the “little candle” and its shining “light” is manifested for all to see. This dim light shines forth brightly and triumphantly in the dark “naughty world” that is tarnished by retribution and the demands of justice. Song, joy, and party now abound in the world healed by merciful forgiveness. The world absent of merciful forgiveness is a “naughty,” “bloody,” and “ravenous” world. The world filled with merciful forgiveness heals and brings life with light and love illuminating it.

Not only does Shakespeare deconstruct the limits of justice for us, he also shows us how a world strictly concerned with justice cannot be a world where love and life itself can flourish. Mercy is the necessary antidote to the world of justice. Moreover, the feminine quality of mercy and the feminine insistence of compassion balance the masculine quality of justice and the masculine insistence on retributive right. Shakespeare does more to advance the compassionate and softer side of life through his comedy than those who transform the play into a tragedy where the difficult struggle for compassionate mercy is brushed aside and unmeaningful.

May we follow Shakespeare and pardon the crimes of others and bring forth reconciliation rather than demand the strict letter of justice which only divides and deepens the chasm between aggrieved and vengeful parties. The Merchant of Venice still stands as one of the greatest of Shakespeare’s play because it does deconstruct and lay bare the shortcomings of society and expose the emptiness of those who demand strict justice. The struggle for mercy is not an easy one as the play attests. But the manifestation of mercy brings us healing and closure; the fruits of mercy is the end of retributive revenge and the realization of the joyous serenity of love, marriage, and song as witnessed at the play’s conclusion.

Paul Krause is a humanities teacher, classicist, and literary essayist. He contributed to the book The College Lecture Today (Lexington Press, 2019), is an Associate Editor at VoegelinView, and is host of the podcast Literary Tales.

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