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Portia: Then (Shylock) must be merciful...

“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned, and done this evil in your sight…..” [The prayer for mercy of King David of Israel, c. BC 980] Psalm 51: 1-2
 

In his “Merchant of Venice” Shakespeare portrays Portia, the acting lawyer, as insisting that Shylock must be merciful towards Antonio. Must I be merciful? Surely mercy is a sign of weakness? If so how can it be a must?

Here in Jersey, 400 years after Shakespeare, Portia’s words remain to challenge all of us with regard to others. “You must be merciful towards... (please fill in the blank)...” Whose name have you inserted? Who do you now have the power and right to destroy? Who is it who has so damaged you that he or she deserves “everything they get”?

Is it the name of someone unknown to others – someone whose need for mercy from you is known only to you both? Someone who earlier this week told lies to cover his or her failure – lies that cost you dearly? Someone who owes you but avoids you? Someone who cheated on you in most precious intimacy?

Portia said to Shylock, “Then [you] must be merciful...” No wonder Shylock reacted so strongly. He blurts out: “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that!” He’s asking her to point to a Law that requires him to be merciful to Antonio.

 
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‘If we refuse mercy here, we shall have justice in eternity.’ (Jeremy Taylor, Vice-chancellor Dublin University, 1613-1667)

Portia gives a truly profound reply to Shylock. It’s all about “mercy” as a quality, as an attribute. Such a quality is not forced, cannot be forced. Portia explains that her “must” is neither law nor commandment. It’s a different “must”. "The quality [that is] mercy is not [to be con]strain’d......[not to be forced]." It’s a must which is never a must.

Mercy, she says, is “mightiest in the mightiest.” Mercy fits “the enthroned monarch better than his crown”, better than “his sceptre”. That sceptre “shows the force of temporal power,” and is “the attribute to awe and majesty, wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.“But mercy is above this sceptered sway...” Mercy is above and beyond the power and majesty and authority of awesome judges and world leaders. The must which is behind mercy is a must because, if absent, it shows that the person who has this power over others is dominated by that power and is by no means worthy of that power.

No wonder mercy is so very, very rare........ Are any of us worthy of the power we have over others? Shakespeare’s Portia explains that rarity. “Mercy is an attribute of God himself”.
 
Shylock is seeking pure justice so she says to him, “Therefore, though justice be thy plea, consider this, that in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.....” If pure justice is to be the only rule in our world, we’re all undone; we’re all in an unchangeable mess. None of us can be saved – unless there is mercy.

Portia again: “We do pray for mercy, and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”

That’s the most important reason why Shylock must be merciful. He wanted to know why he was compelled to be merciful. “Tell me that”, he said. He needed to know of his own personal need to receive mercy himself. If only he could have discovered that, he would have seen that he must be merciful because, unless he showed mercy to others he would receive none himself.

 
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'For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.’ (From the Lord’s Prayer taught by Jesus to his disciples AD 30)

To complete the picture, look closely at the words in bold above. The King David who penned them had not only committed adultery with the beautiful wife of one of his soldiers. He had also arranged that soldier’s death in the front line of battle.

Mercy for David?  David’s God – the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ – must He be merciful? Must God be merciful when I plead with Him as King David did? Portia again: “Mercy is an attribute of God himself”.

Without the mercy of Jesus Christ, available to me because he bore my sins upon that cross, I am, in justice, condemned – forever. Thank heaven for Psalm 51. But Richard Syvret now must be merciful to others who are as culpably guilty as he.
 
 
Richard Syvret

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