Wednesday, August 09, 2006


Failed Persuasion

The Merchant of Venice’s claim to literary immortality stands upon its two defining speeches: Portia’s “The Quality of Mercy” which is matched only by Shylock’s speech “Hath not a Jew eyes, etc”. It is interesting to note that Portia’s words are better known and prized while Shylock’s bid for universal respect is still uneasily received by many literary critics. The two speeches bracket the crucial conflict that is at the core of the play. Shylock’s speech, while making a plea of universal humanity, foretells its failure by ending on a note of revenge, thus alerting us as to his fatal state of mind.

“If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian,
what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian
wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by
Christian example? Why, revenge.
The villainy you teach me,
I will execute, and it shall go hard,
but I will better the instruction.”

Portia’s mellifluous words, rich with Christian pathos, end up with a chilly, alarming edge:

“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”

These respective verbalizations of what the world should be like are not adversative in essence. They put forth a vision of the same gentler, kinder human society. Shylock speaks for the individual vis-à-vis their surrounding society, invoking the need of a human being to have a level of dignity, where his selfhood per se remains intact and politely protected from gratuitous, often violent, spitefulness. Portia speaks from society, representing its necessity for mercy as a negotiated value to pacify and reconcile the conflicting interests of its members.

By the time Antonio manages to utter the words “Gentle Shylock” in beseeching the latter to forego his bond, it is too late for Shylock to respond in kind.

By the time Shylock agrees to take money for his bond and forfeit his claim for the pound of flesh, it is too late for Portia (and the society she represents) to show mercy and let him go unscathed.

It did not have to be too late if only one of them would concede that the other made a good, valid point. But human frailty decreed that it be too late. The failure to persuade or be persuaded is the failure of moral imagination to transcend visceral hostility and give up the idea that an absolute settling of scores for just or impugned grievances, is possible, or even desirable.


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