The Quality of Mercy

January 24, 2017

“The quality of mercy is not strained…” so begins Portia’s lines from The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1) where Shylock is intent on taking a pound of flesh from Antonio who has defaulted on his loan. Portia, disguised as the lawyer Balthasar, tells the moneylender to be merciful.

But in an age of police states and persecution, where “some words can hide others”, is that all William Shakespeare is saying?


Clare Asquith, and now Joseph Pearce, drawing on earlier works of Heinrich Mutschmann and Karl Wentersdorf (Shakespeare and Catholicism, 1952) delve again into the ‘Catholic code’ of the playwright and mine a rich treasure for our day of Christian persecution.

Yes, the quality of mercy. Is it Shakespeare’s plea to governments to protect Catholics? His plea for mercy to Jesuits, then and now? Mercy even for a Jesuit Pope?

In his article, ‘The Catholicism of William Shakespeare‘, Joseph Pearce asks us to reconsider the martyrdom of faithful Christians in light of Shakespeare’s use of “God’s spice… ground to death that they might receive their martyr’s reward in heaven”. The Bard’s pun on Elizabethan policing and execution of “God’s spies”.

Why does the recent film, Silence, now come to mind (which Bishop Barron notes in his recent review), seems to elevate apostasy as a road to salvation among its main protagonists — although the lesser protagonists, faithful Catholic villagers keep to the traditional path of ‘crushing’ to produce a pleasing fragrance to the Lord?

Why is there such a powerful intersect today between mercy and martyrdom?

Perhaps revisiting Shakespeare’s, Romeo and Juliet and The Merchant of Venice (both touching on Southwell’s martyrdom) or even Twelfth Night whose Fool bumbles loosely a description of St. Edmund Campion’s own martyrdom, are now, as they were then, a challenge to injustice, a reminder of divine mercy, and the need for faithful to stand firm against the ‘howls’ of power and the sharp threat of swords.

Let us pray for all persecuted Christians. Let us ask for the intercession of those already martyred – God’s spice, that their example may give us courage in the days to come.

God have mercy on us as we have mercy on others — even our Pope.


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 sceptre 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 enthronèd 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. 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. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.


worshipping God



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