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Measure for Measure

Portia… Your Point Is…?

So, after two days of melting my brain over the head of Patrick Swayze, I was delighted when asked a question about REAL LITERATURE. So, don’t blame me for this side-step into Shakespeare.

Come with me to Shakespeare’s England… or Italy, even… to one of the most ANNOYING characters in LITERATURE: Portia.

I know, I know she was forced to have the game thing with the chests – but anyone that has seen any cartoons in their life is going to be able to figure out that it isn’t going to be the gold or silver ones, is it? Did they not know all that glisters is not gold… well… ok … maybe they didn’t… until right then…

But that can’t excuse her for the pretending-to-be-not-only-a-doctor-of-laws-but-a-man. We can tell its her. Even reading it off the page when we can’t even see her WE KNOW IT’S HER. How can Bassanio not spot this? I mean, I am all for the willing suspension of disbelief, but COME ON. Yes, I know, I know the male actor playing Portia was keen to get into the male character role, but it’s ANNOYING.

And then there’s the ring thing. So, she wants to make a point about a ring, but does she have to keep going on about it? I think he’ll feel bad enough about it (and so he should – let’s not even go there) but she keeps on and on.

But none of that is relevant to my point.

So, my point is…?


The quality thereof.

Or qualities, actually.

I’ve dealt with mercy before, kind of, in a discussion of grace. But in the courtroom scene, in her most eloquent moment, Portia is looking for mercy for Antonio. Please have a look at this very short BBC clip.

Is it just me, or does she mispronounce “sceptre/sceptred”?

OK so that is the “quality of mercy speech”. She pleads with Shylock to raise his game – to behave like a King or God himself to gain a bonus two-way blessing. And then she concludes:

…. Therefore Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.”

Shylock has been holding to the letter of the law. He has his bond. He will have his bond. He’s about as fixed on the bond as Portia is about to be about the rings. He wants justice. Which is fair enough.

Portia then goes on to explain that neither Jews and Christians – “none of us” can stand justified before God. God made his laws – the ten commandments, the Law contained in the Pentateuch, the Oral Law and traditions. And although obedience to the Law was required – Portia argues that neither Jew nor Christian can live up to it completely. She (or Shakespeare) may have been thinking of such New Testament Scriptures such as:

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”

Romans 3 verse 23.

Shylock’s faith would have been understood by Shakespeare to be about obedience to the letter of the law.

She then goes on to make reference to the Lord’s Prayer when she says, “we do pray for mercy”. She is referring to Christians here – and probably the lines:

“Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors / Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”

Matthew 6 vs 12

In Christianity, believers are in a position of needing mercy and, in tandem, being motivated to show mercy to others. Portia (Shakespeare) may be thinking of Romans 6 verse 14 “you are no longer under law, but under grace.” Again, I refer any remaining readers to the explanation of grace I gave some posts ago.

So there we go. Law versus Grace. Or Mercy.

Here are some other relevant references on this theme:

John 1 vs 17: “For the law was given through Moses. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”.

Matthew 23 vs 23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former”

There is also mention of mercy in the Good Samaritan Story – where the man should have been an enemy to the hurt man – but he was a neighbour and showed mercy on him.

Now… don’t even START me on putting The Merchant of Venice through the Victim Triangle! At least, not tonight….


Suffice to say, Portia only holds the “holier than thou” rescuer role for a few more lines before the misses the whole point of her own speech and turns persecutor…



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6 thoughts on “Portia… Your Point Is…?

  1. I am wracking my brain to remember The Merchant of Venice and Portia is such a dim memory, Shylock’s speech if you cut me do I not bleed and his demand for his pound of flesh, that I remember. I had the absolute pleasure of seeing Derek Jacobi act in the Merchant of Venice but that was over 25 years ago and I have forgotten his role. I always enjoy how you explain your philosophy and you interweave the bible within your explanation, it all works really well.

  2. Have you ever seen Swayze’s ‘Road House’? I’d love to knowq your thoughts on taht one!

  3. May Arthur on said:

    I had to learn Portia’s speech as part of a drama exam – actually it was as part of my elocution classes. As a 10 year old, my teacher laid out the whole plot and then the meaning of Portia’s speech and I had to perform it. I’ve loved that speech ever since. It was only later that I saw the NT influences. Took a Shakespeare course a few years ago. Took a course in Shakespeare when I was in Kenya by an American lecturer. It was great!

  4. I’ve never taken “Shakespeare” too seriously. Seems he didn’t either. I always thought of the MofV as a comedy, even a spoof.
    And I am sure, usually, “the book is beter than the movie.”;-)

  5. Pingback: Three Hundred Wee Scoops « Wee Scoops

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