A pound of flesh.
The pound of flesh, which I demand of him,
Is dearly bought; ’tis mine, and I will have it:
If you deny me, fie upon your law!
There is no force in the decrees of Venice:
I stand for judgment: answer, shall I have it? (Act 4, Scene 1. Merchant of Venice)
The courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice gives a compelling account of the human condition as it highlights the hypocrisies of religion and the law. Although Shylock seems to be getting a fair trial, he’s already condemned, as the court makes a mockery of words like mercy and justice. Shakespeare’s courtroom scene vividly paints a picture of man’s pride, life’s injustices and the consequences of being unable to forgive.
Obviously, Shylock endured much persecution, pain and degradation at the hands of Antonio and the Christian Venetians and undoubtedly, we are able to empathise with his hurt and desire for justice and revenge. We see in Shylock a picture of a man who has been hard done by for much of his life. Despised by men and even by his own daughter, he’s marred with bitterness, pride and vengeance. Justifiable though he may be, he’s not entirely innocent.
As much as it’s possible to understand Shylock, we are torn between seeing him get his pound of flesh and waiting with bated breath for him to show some semblance of mercy. We want him to rise above his circumstances, forgive the Venetians and accept the offer from Antonio. We plead for him to prove himself better before the court and the audience, to extend the virtues of forgiveness, humility, kindness and mercy.
We often see this scene played out daily in our own lives. We’ve all seen people unable to forgive, hardened by anger and vengeance. Bitterness, pride and hatred are like scars on their faces. I’ve seen it in my children when they fight, in my family and amongst friends. We all want our day in court, revenge…. a pound of flesh. Alas! The reality is, life simply is not fair. The courts get it wrong many times; people make mistakes and accidents happen. I almost killed a boy today, or at least very nearly seriously injured him. Thank God, I was driving less than the speed required. Had I been going just 5km faster, instead of him bumping me, it could’ve been me running him down and over. I couldn’t even imagine what it would feel like to live with the guilt of taking someone’s life, let alone a child’s life. How could his family ever forgive me? How would I forgive myself? There are people who live with that kind of guilt for much of their lives. Forgiveness frees us of such unproductive and destructive emotions.
We have all been hurt and we have all at some point, caused pain in others. The fact is, no one is better than the other, there is no one innocent before God. Just like the Venetians who backed Shylock into a corner and Shylock who lashed out from his corner wielding a knife. We are all just a bunch of filthy, rotten sinners in need of a Savior. A Savior who will whisper, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Love your enemies and pray for those who use you and persecute you.” Liberating advice, loving advice, gracious, humble, life-giving advice.
Eventually, we see Shylock’s relentless pursuit of justice and revenge come to a bitter end. He is brought to an excruciatingly painful low, forced into submission and humiliated in the presence of his enemies. We walk away from this scene with genuine sorrow in our hearts for the man. But we walk away knowing that the day will soon come when we all shall see justice. A day when we all stand before the true judge to give an account for every word spoken and every dirty deed done in darkness. Until that day comes, do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.
“He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
Matthew 5:44 (NKJV)
Luke 23:34 (NKJV)