The Quality of Mercy in the Shakespeare’s Lesser Known Plays
The first part of my title is borrowed from act IV of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in which Shylock is begged to spare Antonio’s life; readers are no doubt familiar Portia’s famous speech. It is of this monologue that one 1764 chronicler wrote the following: “the Speech put into Portia’s Mouth in praise of Mercy… is perhaps the finest Piece of Oratory on the Subject, (tho’ very fully treated on by many other Writers) that has ever appear’d in our or any other Language” (Companion). The speech is memorized by young actors and known by experienced ones, it is widely quoted and serves to link William Shakespeare with the theme of mercy in our minds. However, casual readers of the bard run the risk of thinking The Merchant of Venice to be an independent instance; that is, in relating Shakespeare with mercy, one is tempted to turn immediately to Portia’s famous speech and neglect to look elsewhere in the Shakespearean canon. For this reason I have selected three obscure plays to demonstrate that mercy is a dominant theme throughout the bard’s works. The plays I have selected for this purpose – Measure for Measure, Cymbeline, All Is True – were originally divided into three genres: comedy, tragedy, and history respectively (Maston). In using a play from each genre it will be shown that the theme of mercy is universal, and of extreme importance throughout the works of Shakespeare.
Since its original publication in the First Folio, Measure for Measure has confounded critics who cannot accept it as a comedy. Dealing with corruption, beheadings, and near rape, the commentator Edward Dowden described it as “one of the darkest and most painful of the comedies of Shakespeare” (II). It is perhaps counterintuitive to look for compassion in a work named after justice, yet as Dowden said, “its darkness is lit by the central figure of Isabella” (II). The heroine’s consistently forgiving nature averts the story’s impending tragedy, and leads to an unexpected happy ending. Isabella’s speech in defense of mercy has a beauty and a force to rival Portia’s monologue: “Well, believe this,” she tells the Angelo,
No ceremony that to great one ‘longs,
Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword,
The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe,
Become them with one half so good a grace
As mercy does. (II.ii.58-63)
The above speech is delivered on behalf of Isabella’s brother, but the play’s heroine is not partial only to her family. When Isabella’s brother is apparently executed, Isabella’s wrath is quickly melted, and she pleads for Angelo’s life: “Let him not die,” she asks the Duke (V.i.453). The scene is especially shocking because Isabella believes her brother to have died at Angelo’s order. Her conviction of mercy, however, is stronger than her hate. The play ends with Angelo forgiven, Isabella’s brother spared, and the Duke proposing marriage to Isabella. Shakespeare would prove that when mercy prevails, everyone wins.
It is perhaps unsurprising that a comedy should end with faults being pardoned; it is more noteworthy that Shakespeare does the same thing in Cymbeline, which was originally classified as a tragedy (Maston 859). The villain of Cymbeline is the Italian Iachimo who, like Angelo in Measure for Measure, comes close to causing the death of an innocent protagonist. Out of greed, Iachimo slanders Imogen’s honor. Imogen’s husband, mad with jealousy, calls for the murder of his wife: “Let thine own hand take away her life,” he orders a servant (III.iv.26). The lovers are torn by jealousy and mistrust as the play spirals into darkness, and Iachimo, the cause of all, is largely absent from the tragedy he has created until the fifth act. In V.ii a battle rages and Iachimo is disarmed, but spared; left alone on stage he confesses why he cannot fight: “The heaviness and guilt within my bosom / Takes off my manhood” (1-2). Even the dishonorable liar is capable of repentance, and a few scenes later Iachimo receives a forgiveness for which he dares not even plead:
IACHIMO [kneeling] I am down again,
But now my heavy conscience sinks my knee
As then your force did. Take that life, beseech you,
Which I so often owe…
POSTHUMUS [raising him] Kneel not to me.
The power that I have on you is to spare you,
The malice toward you to forgive you. Live,
And deal with others better. (V.vi.413-421)
A scheming villain, often associated with Iago from Othello, Iachimo admits his sin and is pardoned of it. While most tragedies end in bloodshed and vengeance, Cymbeline grants life not only to Pothumus and Imogen but to Iachimo, and even to the captured Roman soldiers: the King, impressed by Posthumus’ mercy, decrees that “Pardon’s the word to all” (V.vi.423). This is a shocking contrast to Shakespeare’s source material in which the villain is tied to a stake, smeared in honey, and left to the insects (Knight 377). In Shakespeare’s version, the power of mercy saves Iachimo’s life. Through forgiveness, tragedy is turned to redemption.
Finally let us consider the historical fiction All Is True or King Henry VIII, written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. I have selected this play in part due to its neglected status in the minds of most readers, and also to demonstrate that a play about one of England’s most infamous monarchs can in fact carry a message of compassion. Henry, a devout Catholic, is portrayed as a good man and a loyal friend, putting people before politics. In the final act of the play, Henry defends the Protestant Cranmer against a slew of enemies. Cranmer is justly accused as “A most arch heretic,” one who is guilty of
The whole realm, by your teachings and your chaplains’-
For so we are informed-with new opinions,
Diverse and dangerous, which are heresies. (V.i.45, V.ii.49-52)
When Henry appears, the accusers appeal to him as a Catholic, stressing his religious duties and calling Cranmer a “great offender” of the church (V.ii.155). Henry, however, rebukes the men and restores Cranmer – despite all objections – to his position at the head of the Council:
Good man, sit down. Now let me see the proudest,
He that dares most, but wag his finger at thee.
By all that’s holy, he had better starve
Than but once think this place becomes thee not. (V.ii.164-167)
Henry goes on to profess Cranmer a true friend, order the lords to embrace him, and make the heretic godfather to Elizabeth I (189-196). At a time when English Protestants were being burned at the stake, Henry VIII appointed one as godfather to his daughter. Thomas Cranmer was essential to the English Reformation: Shakespeare’s audience would at once recognize him as a great man, and admire the Catholic monarch who spared his life.
Portia once said that the power of mercy becomes the throned monarch better than his crown. Shakespeare exemplifies its glory through characters like Isabella, Posthumus, and King Henry. The theme of mercy permeates every genre of Shakespearean drama, and it is mercy, not justice, which allows characters to live for their own and others’ betterment. In light of these things, who can doubt that the quality of mercy is indeed twice bless’d?
Companion to the Playhouse, A. Vol. 1. London: 1764.
Dowden, Edward qtd. in A Shakespeare Commentary: the Plays of W. Shakespeare.
Knight, Charles. Studies of Shakspere: the Comedies, Histories, Tragedies and Poems. Pictorial
and National Edition. Vol. VIII. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1853.
Maston, Doug (editor). First Folio. NY: Applause Books, 1995. Orig. published 1623. Note: the
page numbers listed in the body of this essay are those of Maston’s compilation, not of
the original Folio.
* Measure for Measure. Ed. Jasper Sisson. NY: Dell Publishing Co., 1962
* Cymbeline, King of Britain in The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems. 2nd
edition. NY: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008.
* All Is True in The Norton Shakespeare: Histories. 2nd edition. NY: W. W. Norton and
Company, Inc., 2008.