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Mercy in Shakespeare
Throughout Shakespeare’s plays, characters are often presented with opportunities to have mercy on others, but this is not always the case. In both Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, Tamora and Portia view mercy in different ways yet cannot stay true to them when given the opportunity. Tamora views mercy as a godlike attribute which could have been a ploy to inflate Titus’ ego in an attempt to save her son. Contrastingly Portia sees mercy as a voluntary action made by those in a position of power.
Although their views are different, upon denial of their request for mercy, they both go against what they believe in order to get revenge.
Tamora and Portia have different, yet specific ideas on exactly what mercy means and who is capable of it. Tamora’s plea for mercy from Titus is designed to feed his ego so that he can feel even more powerful at this time of triumph.
Tamora’s statement of “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? / Draw near them then in being merciful” is trying to convey that Titus could become like the gods if he were merciful like them (1.1.17-18). In addition, Tamora shows her belief that mercy is a noble act when she says, “Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge” (1.1.119). However, Portia believes that mercy is more of a voluntary action than a noble one.
When she says, “The quality of mercy is not strained” it shows her belief that mercy cannot be forced (4.
1.179). In addition, Portia goes on to explain that “It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” which means that giving mercy must come and feel natural. If it does not feel this way, then it must be forced, and therefore, the mercy is false. Although most of their ideas about mercy are different, it can be interpreted from their statements about nobility and voluntary action that mercy requires a strong character.
In these plays, Shakespeare shows mercy as an attribute that both sides will have the power to yield. Tamora and Portia plead for mercy when they are powerless and are denied that luxury. This denial sprouts a grudge against Titus and Shylock which is resolved later in the play.
Tamora resolves this grudge by killing Titus’ sons. Although she asks, “But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets / For valiant doings in their country’s cause?” she does not provide Titus’ sons the same mercy she pleaded for, even though they are simply being loyal to Titus, just as her sons were loyal to their country (1.1.112-113). Similarly, Portia resolves her grudge when she accuses Shylock of conspiring against the life of a Venetian citizen, which finally forces him to convert and give everything to Jessica upon his death. Here, Portia could have shown mercy on Shylock for similar reasons as she asked for Antonio. Portia goes directly against her beliefs of mercy simply because Shylock would not afford her the same luxury. Tamora and Portia’s beliefs on mercy seem to only apply when they are the ones in need of help.
Shakespeare provides many opportunities where his characters could show mercy, however, none seem to take them. Tamora and Portia have different views on what mercy is, however, they both seem to backpedal when given the opportunity to put those beliefs into practice. Tamora believes that mercy is an attribute the gods possess and only a noble character can express. Portia sees mercy as more of a voluntary action that must be natural in order to be authentic. Both Portia and Tamora are denied mercy, and therefore, hold a grudge against Titus and Shylock. When given the opportunity to show mercy and adhere to their beliefs, both Tamora and Portia fail. Overall, these characters only believe their statements about mercy when it is convenient for them.
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