Mercy (of Shakespearean scale)
I spent a year at a large university studying the works of Shakespeare without ever wondering if Shakespeare was a Christian or not. At least, I don’t recall ever being challenged by the notion. It must be that I blithely assumed that he was not a Christian. It just didn’t come up in class. Of course, everybody knew that Ben Jonson became Roman Catholic, but what he was before seems shrouded. Again, my classmates didn’t probe, nor did I. Christopher Marlowe spoke poorly about religion in general so, probably not a Christian. He also sliced-up a guy during a barroom brawl over who would pay the tab. The other guy won, having killed Marlowe with knife to head, but technically lost the argument; after all, the person who lived had to pay the tab (Mei Trow hypothesizes). Now that I think about it, Jonson himself killed a guy and served time in jail for it, didn’t he? Elizabethan drama-making was, apparently, dramatic. Maybe not a fit landscape for Christianity at all.
Years later, in seminary, one of my professors, an ardent lover of Shakespeare, stated unequivocally that Shakespeare was most certainly a Christian, and of the Protestant variety no less. (He withheld judgment on Jonson and Marlowe.) Again, I just didn’t bother much about it, until then. I have since reflected on Leland Ryken drawing attention to Shakespeare’s upbringing (including baptism), education, friendships, cultural connections, as well as the scores of biblical and Christian experiential allusions in his plays and poems (far more than his contemporaries). Leland advises:
“We should call a moratorium on the entrenched bias of the secular academy in regard to Shakespeare's plays. University scholars simply assume that Shakespeare was as secular as they are.”
Ryken wisely doesn’t commit to the state of Shakespeare’s soul, but you can read his comments in “Was Shakespeare a Christian Writer?” What is striking to me is that I spent a year with Shakespeare without ever really considering this. It was a busy year.
As a very quick and tantalizing illustration of why the question matters, consider these words of Portia in The Merchant of Venice. She is contemplating the viciousness of Shylock and has this to say about mercy.
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.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter 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 sceptered 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
You can also find Portia’s speech captured as a free-standing poem in Ryken, The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems, (54-55).
The Bible tells us that God is compassionate and merciful (Jas. 5.11; Ex. 34.6), the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1.3; Rom. 12.1). The very ministry of Jesus is an act of that mercy (Tit. 3.5; Eph. 2.4; 1 Pet. 1.3). What Portia seems to be reflecting upon is that God’s Son, Jesus, is mighty not only in His kingly power, but also in his mighty mercy: “mightiest in the mightiest” and “becomes / The thronèd monarch better than his crown.” It would seem that the mercy of God “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven” in the person of Jesus. The Bible shows over and over again the mercy of Jesus. He has compassion for the widow (Lk. 7.13), the blind men (Mt. 20.31, 34; cf. Mk. 10.47-48), the Canaanite woman (Mt. 15.22), the father and his son (Mk. 9.22; Mt. 17.15), the blind beggar (Lk. 18.38, 39), the ten lepers (Lk. 17.13), the demon possessed man (Mk. 5.19), even the great crowds around Him (Mk. 6.34; Mt. 9.36; 14.14; 15.32; ). And so, for the great King of Kings, “mercy is above this sceptered sway.”
And this is beneficial, continues Portia, because “in the course of justice none of us / Should see salvation.” This more than echoes Rom. 3.20: “by works of the law no human will be justified in His sight (Gal. 2.16).” Indeed, given that Shylock is seeking flesh as payment for debt, it is as if Portia is diving into the deep waters of Hosea 6 and Micah 6 to remind him that God desires mercy and not sacrifice (Mt. 9.13; 12.7). Is she wooing Shylock to himself appeal to God for mercy?
This poem of Shakespeare on mercy is suffused with the mercy of Jesus, spoken from the perspective of one who would know, like Portia. And, perhaps, Shakespeare himself.