The idea of mercy is important in The Merchant of Venice because it provides a focus for the contrast between Venetian Christian society and the alien invader, represented by Shylock. Mercy occupies a "central" position in the trial scene (IV.i.), where the power struggle between aristocratic Venetian society and the threatening force Shylock comes to a climax. My thesis is that the contrast between (and equation of) mercy and revenge in the trial scene reveals the true nature of Venetian society as insecure , hypocritical and vengeful.
Mercy is clearly of greatest importance to the Christians in this text. It is only mentioned in the trial scene by two characters--the Duke (3 times) and Portia, in her guise as the lawyer Balthazar, (10 times). Mercy is significantly never mentioned by Shylock, implying either that he does not believe in it, or that he sees a hidden motive behind the Christians' insistence that he should be merciful to Antonio. By looking at what mercy means to the Christians and how they use it in the trial scene, I will try to show how it acts as a mirror for their true value system.
Mercy can be defined as "kind and considerate treatment that you show to someone, especially when you forgive them or do not punish them." It is a Christian value associated with the New Testament, thus contrasting with Shylock's Old Testament religion and its image of a more stern and vengeful God. In the first half of the trial mercy and revenge are contrasted. The Duke appeals to Shylock to be merciful as if he shared their Christian values--
Shylock the world thinks, and I think so too,
That thou but leadest this fashion of thy malice
To the last hour of act, and then 'tis thought
Thou'll show thy mercy...
The implication is that demanding Antonio's death for forfeiting a bond is "strange apparent cruelty" (IV.i.21), unnatural and that "the world" (Venetian aristocratic society) agrees with him. Shylock demands his bond with no other justification than "a lodg'd hate, and a certain loathing / I bear Antonio" (IV.i.60-61). He tries to justify taking a pound of Antonio's flesh by appealing to the Venetian's sense of ownership, equating it to their slaves--"The pound of flesh which I demand of him / Is dearly bought, 'tis mine and I will have it" (IV.i.99-100). Shylock's use of strange language and images (lines 44-58) makes him appear uncivilized in contrast with the Christians' talk of gentleness and mercy.
Portia's speech on mercy brings in the aspect of power,...