Shylock Wins?

To have a right to do a thing is not at all the same as to be right in doing it.

G. K. CHESTERTON, A Short History of England

In Shakespeare’s classic play The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is a Jewish businessman seeking revenge for years of persecution. Antonio, one of the leading businessman, takes out a loan to help a young friend, and as a forfeit Shylock demands a pound of Antonio’s flesh should he fail to repay. In the course of the play, the debt is forfeit in Shylock refuses three times the amount of the loan in order to take the pound of flesh, eager to get back at someone who’s ostracized and villainized him his entire adult life. Shylock loses his case on a technicality, the contract allowed him flesh but no blood, but the precept is Shylock has a right he intends to exercise without any regard to the consequences to others.

Sometimes I believe if this play were being written today, Shylock would get his pound of flesh and Antonio’s death wouldn’t matter. People might even organize demonstrations to make sure Shylock could carry out his rights. In the course of my lifetime, rights have been given an absolute status, to be exercised without regard to the effect on others. Long ago we talked about Rights and Responsibilities being linked: you had to exercise a Right responsibly or it could be taken away from you.

What’s the problem with doing something you have a right to do? How it affects others can be the problem, particularly if it turns someone into an object to exploited or an obstacle to be overcome. We can get our rights and destroy the good will of the people around us if it harms them. We can alienate ourselves from people we care about if they think we’re being unreasonable. Insisting on Rights is something we should always have and be able to do, however in relationships between people, perceptions are almost as important and at times the priority of a relationship is more important than something we have a right to do.

Exercising a Right is also a exercise of power, and at times power over an unwilling subject. The balancing factor in any exercise of power is Mercy, compassion for another person. In The Merchant of Venice, the appeal for justice is met by an appeal to Mercy. Portia (in disguise as a judge) delivers this classic monologue in Act IV, Scene 1:

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.

An appeal to carry out a right, as Shylock does against Antonio, is an assertion of power, which carries consequences. In the play, these consequences for Shylock are public: although how we carry out a Right can have bad consequences, it also speaks to the nature of someone’s character, what someone’s core values are. Matthew 5:6 has this to say about Mercy:

Blessed are the merciful,for they will be shown mercy.

So do we insist on every right possible, try to expand our rights to cover things most sane people would reasonable avoid, or claim only our rights to the basics of life and freedom of conscience? Do we insist on the right to treat the world as a hostile entity and equip ourselves against threats which may never materialize, or try to avoid provoking anger whenever we can? Do we insist on our pound of flesh, and let vengeance rule our lives?

Perhaps the better path is embracing Mercy as a balance in our lives, even if it means taking the extreme step of imitating the Mercy God shows us through Christ?


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