In September, I’ll be teaching a class of homeschoolers one of my favorite things–Shakespeare! Now, that may not ring your bell, and I understand that. I’m going to do my best, however, to bring it alive to my students–perhaps to open a whole new world of literature for them.
We’ll be studying The Merchant of Venice, one of my favorites. There are several themes in the play. They include racism, money-lending, friendship and loyalty, marriage, justice, and mercy.
One of the most-loved speeches of Shakespeare’s is in this play. It is spoken by the lovely Portia, who is appealing to Shylock, the money lender, to release Bassanio, who loves Portia, from the dreadful sentence of losing a pound of flesh for his failure to repay a debt. And Shylock, full of hatred against all who have persecuted him for being a Jew, gets to choose where that pound of flesh will be taken.
Here is her eloquent plea:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth like 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.
This is a speech that is full of a knowledge of scripture. It refers to mercy as being an attribute of God, and points out that none of us would willingly demand justice from God, but that we would instead pray for mercy.
In Micah 6:8, we read: “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
First, I want to point out that God requires us not to do justice, but to behave justly; that is, in a fair and honest manner.
And then, we are to love mercy. After all, where would any of us be without the mercy of God? If His justice were not tempered by His love and mercy, we would all face a dismal eternity.
Finally, we are to walk humbly with God. We ought not to walk in pride, holding ourselves up as the model for others. We are to understand that “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Romans 3:10).
Here’s a favorite hymn of mine: