published on February 24, 2018
Mercy Beyond Justice
The Tragedy of Shylock and Antonio
Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice provides a dramatic setting for thinking about the relationship of mercy to justice, a topic of great concern to contemporary ethical and political thought. Traditionally classified as among Shakespeare’s comedies, the play can also be analyzed as a tragedy in which Shylock is the protagonist. The tragedy is driven by the relatively weak conception of mercy in relationship to justice that informs Portia’s famous soliloquy “the quality of mercy . . . . ” The mercy she praises is closely related to the stoic conception of mercy that Seneca urges upon Nero, a mercy that is bound within the confines of justice. Examining Aquinas’ discussion of misericordia in relation to justice and forgiveness provides a more robust conception of mercy that is closely associated with friendship, particularly the friendship Aquinas argues is owed by all human beings to all human beings. This concept of mercy can rightly be said to be a mercy beyond justice, a mercy that justice strives to attain.