Shakespeare’s Treatment Of Justice And Mercy In The Merchant Of Venice

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The treatment of justice and mercy in Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice is done throughout different layers of narrative.

Firstly, it is done through the city itself. Venice’s economic stability heavily relies on foreign business. To protect the rights of these merchants, the city has economic laws in place. Although these laws are on Shylock’s side when he goes to court to demand his “pound of flesh”, Shylock is still expected to show mercy, as everyone wants to prevent him from cutting a part of a living body.

If he only were to forgive Antonio’s transgressions against him with kindness, Shylock nonetheless makes the fair point that this decision would be questionable. This would indeed be showing mercy, but Antonio never asks for it, while Shylock does not even seem willing to show mercy. Indeed, he does not flinch and wants his pound of flesh he believes he rightfully deserves through a court of Justice. He then continues on saying “my deeds upon my own head.” While he denies Antonio mercy, he is unknowingly denying himself any future mercy from anyone.

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On the religious aspect, throughout the play, on the one hand, Judaism is associated with the Mosaic code which strictly emphasizes on justice and following the law to the letter. However, on the other hand, Christianity is associated with the New Testament which emphasizes God’s mercifulness, and his offer of salvation.

Furthermore, Bassanio’s love interest, Portia, is trapped by some uncanny justice. Her father created a strange rule before he died: she could only marry a man who could pick the casket made in lead, and make the suitors that would pick anything but this casket swear to leave and never marry anyone. Although her father is dead, she still abides to this law.

She also holds all her admirers to a high standard of justice. When each and every one (except for Bassanio) chooses the wrong casket— one silver, one gold— she instructs them that they must leave her forever; but also, they cannot court any other woman. They give up their chance of ever being married to a lady. It’s a harsh punishment, even quite an unfair one, but since they agreed to it beforehand, justice has decided that they have to respect those rules. In this case, there’s a flagrant lack of mercy. They punish these men so gravely without any kind of forgiveness.

Thus, in The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare puts justice and mercy at completely opposite poles. When justice is achieved, there is no hope for mercy. When mercy is shown, justice is not fulfilled. The idea of Justice in The Merchant of Venice is tainted by unfairness.

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Shakespeare’s Treatment Of Justice And Mercy In The Merchant Of Venice. (2021, September 14). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 24, 2024, from
“Shakespeare’s Treatment Of Justice And Mercy In The Merchant Of Venice.” Edubirdie, 14 Sept. 2021,
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