The Merchant of Venice

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Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Prejudice and Intolerance Theme Icon
Human and Animal Theme Icon
Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Icon
Greed vs. Generosity Theme Icon
Reading and Interpretation Theme Icon
Love and Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Merchant of Venice, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Law, Mercy, and Revenge Theme Icon

Both the central action of The Merchant of VeniceShylock's attempt to revenge himself on the Christian Antonio—and the romantic subplot—between Bassanio and Portia—explore the relationship between law, mercy, and revenge.

Shakespeare's contemporary, the philosopher Francis Bacon, defined revenge as a "kind of wild justice." When one private individual decides to revenge himself on another, he is going outside the official justice system. And yet, as the phrase "wild justice" suggests, the revenger is responding to what he sees as a "higher law." The revenger takes the law into his own hands when he feels that the state is not capable of or refuses to enforce justice. Therefore, while law and revenge are technically opposed to each other, since revenge is illegal, they also overlap. Shylock, pursuing Antonio's "pound of flesh," exposes the intimate connection between law and revenge. He seeks vengeance against Antonio precisely by sticking to the letter of the law within the Venetian justice system.

In the courtroom scene of Act 4, scene 1, both the Duke and Portia present mercy as a better alternative to the pursuit of either law or revenge. Shylock explicitly refuses to show mercy, while the Christians, in sparing Shylock's life in the end, claim that they have. Yet, when they do, Shylock himself asks to be killed. He says that, having had all of his possessions confiscated and his religious identity revoked (which would also make it impossible for him to work as a money-lender, since Christians were not allowed to practice usury), he has nothing left to live for. The question of who is or is not merciful, therefore remains open.

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Law, Mercy, and Revenge Quotes in The Merchant of Venice

Below you will find the important quotes in The Merchant of Venice related to the theme of Law, Mercy, and Revenge.
Act 1, scene 3 Quotes
I will buy with you, sell with you, talk with you, walk with you, and so following; but I will not eat with you, drink with you, nor pray with you.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Bassanio
Page Number: 1.3.35-38
Explanation and Analysis:
Shylock utters these words during his first interaction with Antonio and Bassanio in the play, an interaction which reveals how complicated a figure Shylock will become in The Merchant of Venice. He will have more pitiful moments like this, despite his more general role as antagonist who seems to literally seek Antonio's flesh and blood. Here, as Shylock describes the rules he follows as he interacts with society, he also expresses the categorical isolation he feels as a member of the Jewish community, who is largely excluded from social aspects within the Christian Venice. He can participate in the public space of the marketplace and engage in commerce (and "buy," "sell," and "walk" with others), but he cannot (or will not) enter the more intimate spaces (to engage in worship or participate in meals). Here, though, Shylock is delivering these words in a public street; we cannot be sure whether he is accurately describing his own feelings of isolation, or merely harnessing this social reality to suit his needs in this conversation. 
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Let the forfeit
Be nominated for an equal pound
Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken
In what part of your body pleaseth me.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 1.3.160-163
Explanation and Analysis:

While Shylock is bartering with Antonio and Bassanio in order to arrange their new loan, he decides to ask for an unusual form of repayment, should Antonio default on the loan: a pound of Antonio's flesh. This strange request captures the way that human actors are intrinsically associated with their financial means in this play, but it also provides a platform for subsequent reflections on honesty (would Antonio truly allow his blood to be spilt over a legal agreement?), mercy (might Shylock be overcome with mercy shortly before he would witness Antonio become injured), and violence (would this act of violence be enough to satiate Shylock's lust for revenge)? 

Act 3, scene 1 Quotes
If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker), Antonio
Page Number: 3.1.52-53
Explanation and Analysis:

Salarino claims to be "sure" that Shylock will not take Antonio's flesh because there is no clear use for Antonio's skin and blood (as Salarino implies with his blunt question "what's that good for?"). Shylock glibly comments that Antonio's flesh could be used to "bait fish," before he more directly claims that Antonio's flesh would "feed my revenge." It would allow Shylock to finally avenge the way that Antonio and others mistreat him (and other members of the Jewish community). By claiming that acts of vengeance would "feed" his revenge, Shylock implies that revenge is a natural human desire, like sexual desire or physical hunger -- and it is sated not by anything technically "useful," but only by inflicting more pain and spreading one's bitterness to others.

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.57-67
Explanation and Analysis:

In the street, Shylock converses with Salanio and Salarino. He discusses his daughter Jessica's sudden leaving, and Salarino asks whether Antonio has lost his wealth at sea, from shipwrecks. Shylock comments that he will indeed seek a pound of Antonio's flesh if Antonio cannot repay his debt. After Salarino expresses his surprise, asking how Shylock could actually use Antonio's flesh for any purpose, Shylock quickly replies that Antonio's flesh could bait fish -- and suit his lust for revenge. Shylock describes that he has a drive for revenge, as any other individual supposedly does, and then gives us this famous declaration that Jewish individuals are largely the same as any others. 

This plea for the Jewish people is thereby inscribed within Shylock's lust for revenge, and should not be taken out of context. Although The Merchant of Venice does certainly include Shylock's passionate defenses of himself and of his people, this message against stereotypes is tainted by its association with Shylock's individual bloodthirsty personality. The play does not form a clear platform for crying out against anti-Semitism, although it certainly depicts the prejudice that confronts a people of individuals, which perhaps unfortunately includes Shylock.

The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard, but I will better the instruction.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.70-72
Explanation and Analysis:
As Shylock closes his defense of his behavior, and his larger declaration that Jewish and Christian peoples are not as different as they seem to be in Venice, he claims that he has learned his lust for greed and revenge from the Christian individuals who have so mistreated him. He suggests that his own behavior is a reaction to the intolerance which he has faced and which he is currently confronting. He alludes to the fact that Venice's current social currents have been prefaced by prior stigmatization and discrimination, and this perspective certainly makes him a more complicated and sympathetic character than he may have initially appeared to be. 
Act 4, scene 1 Quotes
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.
'T is 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.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker), Shylock
Page Number: 4.1.190-208
Explanation and Analysis:

Portia's eloquent speech describing and lauding the benefits of mercy extends beyond this theme to other notions which appear and reappear throughout the play. Here, in the courtroom, this speech is not exactly a defense of Antonio according to Venetian law; it instead transgresses into religious territory. It raises questions about public versus private duties, religious salvation versus worldly justice, Old Testament versus New Testament ideals, and antagonistic relationships versus social cohabitation. Yet Portia's speech addresses so many other concerns because it almost entirely consists of abstractions. Thus it's not surprising that Portia's words don't even begin to appease Shylock's lust for revenge, or his specific desire to attain a piece of Antonio's physical body.

My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.213-214
Explanation and Analysis:

Shylock is the first to respond to Portia's famous speech about the benefits of mercy. As Shylock advocates that Antonio's flesh should indeed be cut, he justifies his desire by appealing to "the law." As he disguises his craving for revenge as a case of "I crave the law," he suggests the connection between volatile personal emotions and the authoritative, ever impersonal realm of the law. Shylock specifically longs for "the forfeit of my bond." He also elicits questions of ownership and possession; Shylock had a legal claim to Antonio's flesh -- the skin that only physically belongs to Antonio. 

Nay, take my life and all; pardon not that:
You take my house when you do take the prop
That doth sustain my house; you take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.
Related Characters: Shylock (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.390-393
Explanation and Analysis:

Once the Duke has declared that half of Shylock's wealth will go to Antonio and the other half will go to the state, Shylock, in his dismay, provides a powerful description of the connection between one's life and one's wealth. He claims that his property sustains his life, so taking his property is the same as taking his life. Similarly, for Shylock, his wealth sustains his property, so an individual takes his property by taking his wealth. Here, Shylock articulates an indirect but powerful link between his life and his wealth, a direct correspondence which is not surprising given Shylock's generally greedy nature and concern with material possessions. Yet, after Shylock utters this statement, Portia immediately asks Antonio what "mercy" he might render Shylock, continuing to insert the notion of mercy into the courtroom even while simultaneously doling out arguably cruel, unmerciful punishments to Shylock. 

Act 5, scene 1 Quotes
We will answer all things faithfully.
Related Characters: Portia (speaker)
Page Number: 5.1.321
Explanation and Analysis:

Now that Portia and Nerissa have revealed their deception, Portia assumes that Bassanio and Gratiano are likely unsatisfied by their explanations thus far. So she urges them to go in, so that they may begin interrogating her and Nerissa.

Here, Portia promises to be faithful in her answers about "all things." She seems to have quickly forgotten how Bassanio and Gratiano were themselves unfaithful when they gave away their rings at the courthouse, despite their prior vows to Portia and Nerissa that they would never part from these rings. We are left, at the play's end, with a promise for full disclosure in the future. This provides a fitting end to our beginning, when Antonio's sadness was unexplained and unclear. Now that these relationships have formed over the course of the play, they can perhaps begin to remove the secrecy and unrevealed nature of characters' internal experiences -- although these relationships themselves are framed by such uncertainty, because of their connections to Portia and Nerissa's rings, and any clarity must necessarily occur off the stage, beyond the edges of the play's artificial world.