The Merchant of Venice

The quality of mercy

Mercy is a very important theme in The Merchant of Venice. It is dealt with on many levels, through religion, laws of the state and general human interaction. The play also has many biblical references and focuses on the Christian ideals of mercy very closely.

However, Shakespeare’s treatment of this is much more complex than that. Certain characters claim to show mercy, yet they may be oppressing another character. Some characters show mercy to some people, but not to others. Complete the following tasks.

Discussion in pairs

  • Firstly, get into pairs and answer the question – how do you define ‘mercy’?
  • Look up a definition if you need a starting point, and try and think of some examples from your lives or from the media, where mercy has been shown.
  • Write down your agreed definition, and your examples of different kinds of mercy.

Individual work

Next, go through the text and find a list of quotes and moments that relate to mercy:

e.g. “The quality of mercy is not strained” (Act 4, Scene 1)

  • How does the character or Shakespeare define mercy?
  • What qualities do they associate with mercy?
  • Which characters talk about it?
  • What kind of language do they use?

Pick TWO moments from the play that deal with mercy:

  • Who is claiming to show mercy and how?
  • Do you think they are truly showing mercy?
  • Are they teaching a lesson about mercy and, if so, do they practice what they preach?
  • Is this mercy reserved for some characters and not for others?
  • Can you find another moment in the play where this character is acting differently to thei actions in this moment?
  • Do you relate to these moments? Can these moments from the play and the way Shakespeare presents them teach us anything today?

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