Mercy v. Justice – Old Testament v. New Testament
While the conflict between justice and mercy plays a key role in determining the outcome of The Merchant of Venice, this conflict is even more important because it provides a setting for the contrast between the rigid law and rules of the Old Testament and the concepts of mercy and forgiveness as taught by Christ in the New Testament. It is in the climactic trial scene that The Duke, hoping Shylock will excuse Antonio's penalty, asks him, “How shall thou hope for mercy rend'ring none?” He is referring to expectations of judgment in the afterlife. However, so is Shylock, when he counters, “What judgment shall I dread doing no wrong?” This exchange perfectly presents this conflict between of the Old Testament and the New, in which the former is seen to emphasize strict obedience as mankind’s obligation to God while the latter stresses God's grace and mercy.
The laws and rules of the Old Testament insisted on strict justice, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” (Exodus 21:23, 24; also see: Leviticus 24:19, 20; and Deuteronomy 19:21) while the New Testament calls for mercy, “Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7) said Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. He later added “Ye have heard that it hath been said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth’; but I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39). Shakespeare’s version of “An eye for and eye” is found at the end of Shylock’s great speech in the trial scene of Act IV, “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.” His demand for vengeance is made more understandable in this famous speech as he lays open the years of pain and anger caused by the anti-Semitic treatment and abuse from the likes of Antonio and the rest of Venetian society.
But, while he is more a victim than a villain, he's not blameless. What turns Shylock into a ruthless avenger is his daughter’s elopement with a Christian and her rejection of the religion of her family. It is this betrayal by his own flesh and blood that renders Shylock seemingly merciless towards Antonio. At first, the others do not take Shylock seriously; they cannot believe that he will go through with his threat. Shylock, for his part, has indeed become fierce in his desire to extract vengeance by forcing the death of Antonio.
The trial scene is constructed from a Christian perspective, and it highlights the dichotomy of Old Testament legalism as opposed to the New Testament gospel of grace and forgiveness. The Duke, Bassanio and finally Portia, all plead with Shylock to show mercy, but Shylock's hate has made him immune to reason, as he is totally absorbed by a passion for revenge....