Merchant of Venice Seminar Mercy vs. Justice

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Merchant of Venice Seminar

Mercy vs. Justice

William Shakespeare has a very interesting and insightful view of the theme “mercy vs. justice”, a concept that radiates through his play, The Merchant of Venice. Based on how the many plots within the play resolve themselves (or fail to do so), Shakespeare teaches that it is nearly impossible for mercy and justice to simultaneously be achievable in situations, and that either the former or latter will be a main focus, rather than both. One of the many instances where this is shown is in Act 4, Scene 1, also known as the court scene. In this scene, Shylock is mercilessly treated as Portia brings justice to the court room, which in turn denies Shylock of claiming his pound of flesh from Antonio. This shows that justice and mercy are unable to coexist, and in this case, justice prevails. However, this does not mean that the concept of mercy in the play is any less important. In Act 3, Scene 2, Portia shows mercy to Bassanio when he prepares to choose a casket. She does this by telling him to wait and relish the moment they have together, considering the fact that it may be their last if he chooses incorrectly. In addition, Portia has music played that includes some lyrics that coincidentally rhyme with “lead”, the material that makes up the casket with her portrait in it. (Eric Armstrong)

In addition, the theme of mercy vs. justice is shown within many of the plots in Merchant of Venice. These plots include the pound of flesh, the caskets, the rings, and the eloping.

Pound of Flesh

There is a difference of opinion in the Flesh plot. Jews may believe there are being merciful to Antonio by letting him go alive; however, Christians may think that justice is being served to Antonio. There difference and opinion is because of their perspective of each other and whether they are of higher or lower social status. Therefore, Christians believe that justice overpowers mercy in this plot. First of all, when Shylock and Antonio negotiate on a bond, Shylock is adamant about his idea of it being a pound of flesh and exhibits no sign of mercy towards the man whose life is potentially at stake. This shows how Shylock will work towards what he feels is a sufficient bond and act as just as he feels necessary. (Alex Garcia)


During the choosing of caskets, both justice and mercy are shown, albeit in different situations. When Morocco and Arragon each attempt to choose the correct casket, proper procedure is taken, just as it is when each of them are incorrect in their choosing. Once those two are incorrect, they are forced to do what is just, including vowing to never marry anyone else in their life. However, when Bassanio is choosing a casket Portia shows mercy. This occurs when she has music play that includes lyrics that rhyme with “lead”, the material that the correct casket is made out of. This playing of music insinuates that Portia was attempting to subconsciously hint to Bassanio which casket was correct. (Eric Armstrong)


When Portia and Nerissa each trick their husbands to give up their rings to them, they initially demand justice, but soon begin to show mercy to them. When the men confess to giving up their rings, Portia and Nerissa act horrified, and refer them to the vows that the men initially took regarding the rings. However, after much pleading from Bassanio and Gratiano, the women show them mercy because they finally realize what a difficult position the men were put in when they gave up the rings. (Eric Armstrong)


After Jessica leaves her father, Shylock, to live with Lorenzo, Shylock is anything but merciful to her. Rather, he is angered at the very thought that his only daughter would betray him to live with a Christian. This is not fair to Jessica because she is capable of making her own decision. However, Jessica displays unjust (no justice) behavior to her father when she robbed him of his precious possessions. (Alex Garcia)

Character Analysis – their relation to the theme
JESSICA: Robbing Shylock (Robbie)

Jessica robbing Shylock can be seen in different perspectives. One of them can be that it’s seen as being unjust because Shylock is her father. He is the person that took care of her and looked out for her. An example of this is that Shylock thought that the Christians could not be trusted so he would try to protect Jessica from them and keep her away from them. Because Jessica robbed him, Shylock felt betrayed and sad because of the fact that Jessica robbed him and ran off with a Christian man. Shylock felt no compassion and showed no signs of mercy towards her. He referred as to not having a daughter because he feels that his daughter would not do this to him. The other perspective is that robbing Shylock could show justice because he didn’t treat Lorenzo very well. For example, as Jessica went to greet Shylock and Lorenzo when they arrived home, Lancelot said, “Why Jessica!” and Shylock replied, “Who bids thee call? I do not bid thee call” (2.5.7-8). In a way Shylock is belittling Lancelot by saying why are you saying hello? I did not tell you to speak. Robbing Shylock and going off to get married to Lorenzo could be payback for the way Shylock treated Lancelot.


- Alack, what heinous sin is it in me To be ashamed to be my father's child! But though I am a daughter to his blood, I am not to his manners. O Lorenzo, If thou keep promise, I shall end this strife, Become a Christian and thy loving wife. (2.3.15-20)

- I am sorry thou wilt leave my father so (2.3.1)

- “Farewell, and if my fortune be cross’d, I have a father, you a daughter, lost“ (2.6.54-55).

“Here, catch this casket, it is worth the pains, I am glad ‘tis night, you do not look on me, For i am much asham’d of my exchange. But love is blind, and lovers cannot see The pretty follies that themselves commit; for if they could, Cupid himself would blush To see me thus transformed to a boy” (2.6.34-40).

Bassanio and the Duke (Nicole Molinaro)


  • No justice is shown to Bassanio because his wife plays a trick on him.


“Fie, what a question’s that,

If thou wert near a lewd interpreter!”

  • He shows no mercy towards Shylock because his bond endangers his friend, Antonio’s, life.


“Yes, here I tender it for him in the court,

Yea, twice the sum; if that will not suffice,” (4.1.207-208)

The Duke:

  • Because the law of Venice doesn’t leave room for mercy, he has to show justice to Shylock. If not the reputation of the venation market would be destroyed for discarding an illegal bond.


“You are welcome; take your place.

Are you acquainted with difference

that holds this present question in the court?” (Act 4 scene 1, page 72, lines 160-170)

  • The duke shows a bit of mercy to Shylock by letting him lice despite his cruel intentions. It is shown that his bias and prejudice towards Jews lessons because the Duke could have punished Shylock a lot further.


“That thou shalt see the difference of our spirt,

I pardon thee thy life before thou ask it.

For half thy wealth, it is Antonio’s

The other half comes to the general state,

Which Humbleness may drive us unto a fine.” (Act 4 scene 1, page 81, lines 366-370)

Portia (Alex)

  • When Portia tells Shylock that Venetian law is indeed on his side, she seems to be inclined to show justice. However, she begs him to show mercy, “an attribute to God himself” (4.1.191) that “seasons justice” (4.1.192). She repeats – rather than insisting upon justice – that Shylock should show mercy. Even though he rejectes her request: “I crave the law” (4.1.202), Portia makes a stronger case for mercy, as an alternative to either justice or revenge, than the Duke did.

  • Portia’s mercy versus justice speech in Act 4:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

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 throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre 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 sceptred sway;

It is enthroned 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. (4.1.182-203)

  • When Portia interprets the law even more literally than Shylock intended, she acts unjust. In detail, she reminds Shylock that the contract doesn’t grant him any drop of blood from Antonio’s body: “the words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’” (303). She adds that if, in taking his pound of flesh, Shylock sheds “one drop of Christian blood” (4.1.306), then, following the law of Venice, all his lands and goods will be confiscated and given to the city.

  • Portia displays no justice to her husband when she fools him into giving her their relationship ring:

You press me far, and therefore I'll yield.

Give me your gloves, I'll wear them for your sake.

And for your love, I'll take this ring from you.

Do not draw back your hand; I'll take no more

And you in love shall not deny me this. (4.1.423-7)

  • Portia shows mercy when she stops arguing with Bassanio about him giving the ring away. Her last lines:

It is almost morning;

And yet I am sure you are not satisfied

Of these events at full. Let us go in,

And charge us there upon inter’gatories,

And we will answer all things faithfully. (5.1.295-9)
How and when does Portia develop the theme?

Portia begins to develop the theme of justice and mercy when she acts unmerciful and unjust to her possible suitors. This is the first time that the theme is introduced in the casket plot. However, Portia is mostly known for her mercy speech, which occurs in Act Four (the pound of flesh plot). Despite what she stated in her speech, she does not end up showing any mercy towards Shylock. Instead, the prejudice she had disabled Portia from displaying any fairness or forgiveness of her own. She agrees with stripping him of his identity and forcing him to give up his occupation. In other words, they reduce him to nothing more than the bare animal. Even though this exhibits her lack of mercy, the outcome of Act 4 could not changed because of that same Jewish prejudice that was deeply etched in Venetian society.

In addition, she develops the theme further near the end of the ring plot. The child-like trick she played on her dear husband Bassanio, shows her unjust behaviour. By fooling her loved one into a scheme, Portia does not exhibit fair and reasonable qualities. However, she redeems herself when she forgives Bassanio for not keeping her ring. In Act 5, she shows mercy towards her husband.
Antonio (Mia)

  • “I am as like to call thee so again, to spit on thee again, to spurn thee too.” (1.3.125-126)- Expects Shylock to have mercy towards Bassanio and Antonio by lending out money but will not show mercy towards Shylock. Antonio says even if shylock gives mercy he will still spit and stuff does not feel mercy when reminded of how he treats Shylock and other Jews

  • “To quit the fine for one half of his goods, that for this favor he presently become a Christian.”(4.1379-385) Antonio’s punishment towards shylock – showing mercy when not taking away all his goods. But showing justice when wanting him to turn into a Christian. Believes he’s showing mercy when saying he is to turn into a Christian but at the same time wants justice.

Shylock: Courtroom Scene (Eric)

The courtroom scene in William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, is filled to the hypothetical brim with instances of both justice and mercy. One of the main “contributors” of these moments is Shylock. Shylock is actually one of the main reasons for the courtroom scene because he demands to obtain his bond from Antonio, although a strange one. At the beginning of Act 4, Scene 1, Shylock enters the courtroom and immediately expresses his feelings regarding justice, stating that, “If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond” (4.1.85-87). This statement shows how strongly Shylock feels towards receiving his bond just as it was written out in the terms of the agreement. It also shows how Shylock exemplifies justice in this situation because he explicitly states that even if he were to be offered a massive sum of money as opposed to the pound of flesh, he would refuse to show mercy and would rather have a pound of Antonio’s flesh to symbolize justice being brought to the courtroom. To support this odd notion, Shylock asks Bassanio if he would have, “a serpent sting thee twice” (4.1.69)? By this, Shylock means that if he were to accept money instead of claiming Antonio’s flesh as part of the bond he would run the risk of being wronged more than once. This could lead to even more wrong being done to Shylock than initially, and by allowing the bond to not be fulfilled he contradicts his original notion of justice in this situation.


  • “If every ducat in six thousand ducats were in six parts, and every part a ducat, I would not draw them; I would have my bond” (4.1.85-87).

  • “a serpent sting thee twice” (4.1.69).

  • “No, none that thou hast wit enough to make” (4.1.127). This shows how Shylock refuses to let emotion (prayer in this case) affect the trial, lending itself to the concept that is Shylock wants to exemplify justice, mercy cannot coexist.

  • “I stand here for law” (4.1.142). Boom. Doesn’t get much more in-your-face about justice being his main priority than this.

  • Portia: “Then must the Jew be merciful”

Shylock: “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.” (4.1.181-182)This clearly shows that Shylock has no desire to be merciful to Antonio and only stands for justice.

  • “My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond.” This shows that Shylock is willing to accept any penalty, provided he receives his bond.

Opinion on Theme:

Shylock’s undying desire for a pound of Antonio’s flesh leads him to believe that justice should triumph over mercy. This is because justice would dictate that Shylock receives his pound of flesh and, subsequently, Antonio dies as a result. Shylock’s career choice also leads him to have a personal bias of justice being more important than mercy. This is because his job of lending out money with interest leaves no room for mercy because bonds must always be paid back, meaning that this absence of mercy from his life allows him to be a perfect example of justice and how it cannot coexist with mercy.


Merchant of Venice was written for Christians; therefore events are seen from their perspective. This affects our opinion whether justice or mercy was given. Moreover this theme allows us to views the conflict between Christians and Jews very well because we learn about their personality in character traits. Through the course of the play there seems to be a battle and conflict between Shylock, who epitomizes justice, and the rest of the Christians, who seemingly embrace mercy. However, it is realized that true mercy is only given by someone truly divine as it is in human nature to exact justice and make others pay for hurting us. (Nicole and Alex)

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