Mercy versus Law: Christian or Jewish

By Susannah Heschel*

“Which is the merchant here? And which the Jew?” asks Portia as she enters the courtroom, disguised, of course, as the maledoctor of laws, Balthasar. Portia’s gender disguise is accompanied by her confusion: can she not recognize the Jew on sight?
In Shakespeare’s wonderfully subtle, implicit way, he is also suggesting that Portia is in a religious disguise: does she speak in the name of Christianity when she speaks of mercy, or are her courtroom legal maneuverings drawn from rabbinic legal arguments (at least as understood by Christians), but disguised as Christian? Portia proclaims the universal nature of mercy:
“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” (IV,1)
Examining the Shylock’s agreement with Antonio, Portia seems on the verge of granting him his pound of flesh. Shylock greets her pronouncements with joy: “O noble judge! O excellent young man! O wise and upright judge! Most learned judge!”  But then comes the climactic moment when Portia, in a voice no doubt dripping with sadistic pleasure, announces:
“Tarry a little; there is something else.
This bond doth give thee here no jot of blood;
The words expressly are ‘a pound of flesh’:
Take then thy bond, take thou thy pound of flesh;
But, in the cutting it, if thou dost shed
One drop of Christian blood”
Portia’s speech about mercy is lovely, but it is law, not mercy, that the court applies to Shylock. Shakespeare is not being theologically didactic, but uses irony to call the categories into question. Portia, the supposed advocate of mercy, becomes the clever, legalistic Jew—transvestially, dressed as a man. She defeats Shylock by Jewish, not Christian, methods, using Talmudic pilpul, hairsplitting, a rabbinic strategy so often employed by the rabbis. Hairsplitting may be a favored way to win a legal case, but it has come to exemplify the Christian critique of Judaism as obsessed with the letter of the law, thus neglecting the spirit of religion. Jewish legalism is condemned in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul; hypocrisy, Jesus calls it when the Pharisees – woe to them! – worry about the length of their garments’ ritual fringes and the width of their phylacteries. Shylock, the male Jew, represents the old law, Judaism, while Portia, the female Christian, ostensibly portrays the young dispensation. Yet the call for mercy that Portia initially invokes as a contrast to Shylock’s vengeance against Antonio is lost as the Christian court exercises its vengeance against Shylock. The tensions between vengeance and mercy, law and love: these are clichés that Shakespeare may be asking us to question. After all, Portia demonstrates that the Christianity she represents quickly transforms mercy into hairsplitting and revenge against the Jew. And is Judaism really a religion of legalism, impervious to mercy, desirous of vengeance? True, the biblical prophets scream with rage, but theirs is an outrage at the callousness and cruelty of human beings. The righteous indignation of the prophets is “a burning compassion for the oppressed” (Prophets 256).
At the heart of Jewish theology is a belief in divine pathos, that God needs us and is deeply affected by human deeds. Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “To live as a Jew is to live in harmony between the good deeds of a human and the Infinite Holiness, between the compassion of a human being and the mercy of the Eternal.” God is at stake in relations between human beings.
The struggle in the Venice courtroom arises because mercy is placed in opposition to justice, and neither can exist alone. In Judaism, Heschel writes, “God rules the world by justice and compassion, by love.” (The Prophets 280). Justice without mercy brings ethical austerity and can too easily justify indifference, and mercy without justice may bring kindness, but does not alleviate suffering. In Judaism, God is not merely a comfort, but a challenge, and the greatest sin for a Jew is callousness. Like the Gospels themselves, The Merchant of Venice can be read as anti-Jewish or as critical of Christianity’s anti-Judaism. The play accomplishes an exploration of the extraordinary, complex resonances that result from the idiosyncratic theological configuration of Christian-Jewish entanglement, gently urging us not to view the religions as antagonists, but to bring their insights into harmony.

*Susannah Heschel is a professor at Dartmouth College. The essay, translated into Italian, was published by Pagine Ebraiche in its special pages devoted to #VeniceGhetto500 edited by Ada Treves.