"The Quality of Mercy": A Shakespearean Theme


Most authors have a "signature moment," a theme or scene that reoccurs in their work as if they're exploring it from every angle, and Robert Wiltenburg believes that the quintessential Shakespearean theme is mercy. Wiltenburg, the former dean of University College and an adjunct associate professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis, takes us through Shakespeare's comedies, tragedies, and romances to show how mercy evolves in each genre, highlighting great triumphs – and disasters – along the way.



Rebecca King: Hello! And thanks for tuning in to Hold That Though! I’m Rebecca King, and today I am talking to Robert Wiltenburg, who teaches in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wiltenburg has written and spoken about a specific theme that reoccurs in Shakespeare’s work, which is also the topic of our podcast today.

Robert Wiltenburg: We think of writers as having crucial moments. Everyone remembers Dickens’s deathbed scenes or reunion scenes where you suddenly discover, “Oh! That’s the daughter of such-and-such! Who realized?” Or if you are reading something like Homer, it’s battles and “He fell thunderously, and his armor clattered about him” kind of thing. When thinking about Shakespeare, so many of his characters are seeking power of one kind or another. Power of self-discipline of some sorts but more often it’s romantic power, it’s political power, military power, imaginative power over other people. And once you’ve attained that power, how do you use it? Do you use it humanely? Do you use it mercifully? Or do you not? So many times throughout the Shakespeare canon you’ll see a character define themselves by the way in which they use their powers to either grant or withhold mercy. It’s not the key to every play or the key to every character, but again and again, you’ll see that people—sometimes it’s pretty trivial. Some times it’s in easy circumstances, which are, “Oh, sure. Mercy. Fine.” Other times it’s heart wrenching and difficult to do and costs a lot for the character who’s granting mercy at the same time, so it’s not a trivial thing. Sometimes it’s successful; sometimes it’s not. There are tragic landscapes, tragic plays in which mercy is hardly to be found and doesn’t much succeed when it is found. But it is always a key question; it’s always a key element, especially if you are the audience. You are looking for it; you’re yearning for it to be present and to succeed. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t.

RK: The success of mercy often depends on the genre of the play. In the first folio that collected Shakespeare’s works, the editors broke down his plays into three genres: comedies, histories, and tragedies. However, scholars have since added the tragicomedy, which we discussed in a previous episode. Sometimes the tragicomedies are also known as the romances or the problem comedies. Interestingly, Shakespeare seems to have focused on the genres in this order in his own writing career. First he wrote comedies, then histories, then tragedies, and finally the tragicomedies.

RW: Comedy is wonderful, because it is the place where mercy most often triumphs and is easiest to arrange. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the easiest ones of all. You’ve got the situation in which the king and the fairies are quarreling. Oberon, in order to enforce his will, finally just sprinkles something on her eyes that makes her fall her love with this guy who’s got an ass’s head on. It’s a particularly comic moment. And, you know, she finally bends to his will, and when he finally gets what he wants, he feels pity for her and says, “OK, we take the spell off.” And so he exercises mercy. Now, of course, previously he has been anything but merciful in imposing that absurdity on her, but that’s removed. And once it’s removed, it’s, “Oh, OK. We all come to know ourselves.” The lovers do the same thing. There is a night scene in which they are passionately pursuing each other, and then they get confused and pursue the wrong ones but are very certain they are doing the right thing at all times. In comedy, the way in which comedy is most important is people have to learn to treat each other with mercy. They need to stop being so damn sure of who they think they are. They need to stop being so sure of who they think the other person is. They need to give each other space, be a little bit merciful, don’t be so sure of what you think is real, what you think is right. And it is that sort of mutual disarming, that mutual “OK, I’ll give you some slack,” that makes comic resolutions possible. Comedy does not mean that everybody agrees about everything; comedy means there is space for everybody to live their life at the end. Now, of course, you want true lovers to get together, and you want those confusions that have taken place earlier to be resolved. And they are. In that play, if you give up your dead certainty about things, you do get your true love.

RK: Of course, in the tragicomedies, the middle ground between tragedy and comedy, mercy is not so simple, nor does it always win out.

RW: And then there are these so-called problem comedies. Merchant of Venice is wonderful for the subject of mercy party because it’s got that famous speech that everyone knows about mercy. The merchant of Venice, this guy Antonio, he’s the richest guy in town. He’s temporarily embarrassed for funds, and he goes to the local moneylender, Shylock, who happens to be Jewish. He makes this joking arrangement with him, “Oh, yeah, if you can’t pay me back when the time comes, instead give me a pound of your flesh,” not thinking of course that that would ever possible happen. Well, then a series of strange events take place. Ships that were supposed to sail in get wrecked at sea or lost of what ever. Looks like Antonio really wont be able to pay. So then Shylock, who has been mistreated over the years by his Christian fellow Venetians, conceives this extravagant revenge. “Oh, I really will take the pound of flesh.” This is all coming to a climax in the court, and in comes Portia, this young heroine disguised as a legal scholar. She gives this wonderful speech about mercy. She’s imploring Shylock to exercise some mercy, not demand just strict justice. What she says is:

The quality of mercy is not strained; 
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven 
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest; 
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes 
The throned monarch better than his crown: 
His scepter shows the force of temporal power, 
The attribute to awe and majesty, 
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of Kings; 
But mercy is above this sceptred sway; 
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, 
It is an attribute to God himself; 
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s 
When mercy seasons justice.

And of course, a wonderful speech and a wonderful philosophy of governing, of course it doesn’t work in the play. It is announced in the play, but what actually takes place is Shylock is constrained both by a law (it turns out you can take flesh 
But not blood, so there is a technicality on which he can’t do it) and by a conviction of seeking to take the life of a fellow citizen. He is finally forgiven. He keeps most of his capital on the condition that he be forced to convert to Christianity. That is hardly a mercy.

RK: Because of Shylock’s insistence on revenge instead of mercy, he, too, is not met with forgiveness for his actions. Things only get worse for mercy in Shakespeare’s tragedies.

RW: The saddest parts of what happens to mercy in the plays happens in tragedy, where you’ve got these awful situations in which mercy is crying in the wilderness. In Othello, you have the situation where one of Othello’s officers has been disgraced by Iago’s machinations. His innocent young wife tries to make the play on behalf on Cassio, the young officer, and Iago looks at that and says, “Ah, I can find a way to turn that against her. Make even her greatest virtue, her kindness, her desire to bring together and reconcile these two people, I’ll turn that against them.” And he does. And poor Othello is so deluded in the end that even when he is strangling Desdemona, when she shows a sign of life, he says, “Oh, I will be merciful and finish you.” It’s one of the hardest moments in Shakespeare. Similarly in King Lear, where if you look at the various characters, Goneril and Regan, the two daughters who don’t care anything about Lear, Edmund, the bastard brother of Edgar who seeks to conspire against both his father and his brother, they are almost in a contest to see who can be the least merciful. On the other hand, you have miracles of mercy. Cordelia, despite all that’s been done to her, all the suffering she’s been through, she still feels for him just as he did. Edgar, although his father sought his life, his father Gloucester’s feeling suicidal, there is a wonderful moment when Gloucester, blinded (he doesn’t recognize Edgar, who is disguised) says, “Lead me to this cliff, so I can throw myself over.” So Edgar leads him to the cliff, supposedly. It’s wonderful in the theatre, because they are right there on the stage; they are not in the balcony. He’s not going to push him over. He just lets him fall over right there on the stage and then picks him up and revives him. Then Edgar does this wonderful thing. He says, “Look how high the cliff is! You’ve fallen from this incredible height. It’s a miracle!” This is mercy in action: the attempt to heal him, to persuade him that his life is valuable despite everything he has been through. There are moments of that. There is that wonderful moment when Lear has recovered Cordelia at the end, and it’s that great speech about, “The two of us will live like two birds in a cage, and we’ll forgive each other. We’ll live this wonderful, perfected life of mutual mercy and delight and forgiveness.” Then after that, Edmund gives the order. She is taken off and is killed off stage. Certainly, as you are sitting there in the audience, being torn by all of this and taken through it, you are yearning for some sort of mercy to prevail.

RK: In fact, Cordelia’s death so upset audiences that 17th century playwrights revised the end of King Lear so that she lived and happily married Edgar. However, in Professor Wiltenburg’s opinion, the play that best sums up mercy is one of his last: The Tempest.

RW: The play that I think best shows the power of mercy, the vulnerability of mercy is The Tempest. Prospero is a man who has been wronged, like so many of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and heroines. He was the Duke of Milan. He wanted to devote himself to philosophy and study and so forth. His brother, conspiring with the Prince of Naples, Alonso, decides to overthrow him and banish him. This happens, and through a minor act mercy, one of his courtiers, Gonzalo, manages to put Prospero and his infant daughter, Miranda, in a boat, gives them some supplies, gives Prospero some of his books of magic. Providence takes them to a desert island.

RK: And after a dozen or so years go by, Prospero, who has become quite the accomplished magician thanks to his books, learns that a ship carrying his brother Sebastian; the Prince who betrayed him, Alonso; and Alonso’s son, Ferdinand, who just happens to be Miranda’s age, is passing by his island. So Prospero brings them to him by conjuring the titled tempest and leads them to believe they are shipwrecked with illusions placed by Prospero’s fairy servant, Ariel.

RW: Prospero has got a double purpose in the whole thing. Terrible things have been done to him. He’s undergone great suffering, so he wants Milan back. He wants revenge of some sort upon the people who had misused him. But he also wants a happier thing to happen. From the very beginning, his plan has been that Miranda, his now mature daughter, will marry the son of Alonso, Ferdinand. What had been this divorce, this misuse and usurpation, will turn into a unity and a marriage by the end. Now, of course, a lot has to be gone through before that happens. You see all these fierce wandering. You see these trials of love. Is Ferdinand really worthy of Miranda? Well, he shows that he is. Can the men who misused Prospero be reformed? Well, that’s not so clear, and in a couple cases, no. Antonio, Sebastian, his brother and another conspirator, these are guys who can never be reformed. You just have to put them off there, constrain them, and make it impossible for them to do any evil. But there is Alonso, who was his brother prince, and Alonso has enough of a soul left unlike Antonio and Sebastian that he can be appealed to. He cares deeply about his son, and caring deeply about somebody is the thing that makes you redeemable.

RK: But then the moment of mercy comes, what Professor Wiltenburg would call a quintessential Shakespearean moment, where Prospero has achieved the ultimate power over everyone on the island. With his magical illusions, he controls their very senses, making them believe whatever he likes. He’s tested their virtue, as Professor Wiltenburg described, and played matchmaker between Ferdinand and Miranda. He has achieved all that he has set out to do.

RW: And Ariel, who is this airy servant, says to him, “Your charm so strongly works ‘em / That if you now beheld them, your affections / Would become tender.” Prospero says, “Dost though think so, spirit?” “Mine would, sir, were I human.” Prospero thinks about this for a moment, and then he says:

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling 
Of their afflictions, and shall not myself, 
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply, 
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art? 
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to the quick, 
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury 
Do I take part: the rare action is 
In virtue than in vengeance: they being penitent, 
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend 
Not a frown further. Go release them, Ariel: 
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore, 
And they shall be themselves.

It is at that moment that he gives up his power. He gives up his magic. He becomes one of them again. Having arranged this experience for everybody, having redeemed what could be redeemed, constrained what couldn’t be, finally the power of mercy has done everything it can in the world.

RK: Many thanks to Professor Robert Wiltenburg, who teaches in the English department at Washington University in St. Louis. And thanks to you, too, for tuning in to Hold That Thought, produced by Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. This is Rebecca King signing out for now, but if you want to hear more, you can find all of our podcasts on Sound Cloud, ITunes, PRX.org, and Stitcher. Subscribe to keep up with all of our latest.



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