Shakespeare, Divine Mercy, and Mashed Potatoes


By Jon Sullivan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This Jubilee Year of Mercy has everyone excited.

There’s only one problem: I don’t understand mercy. In an intellectual, abstract way, I understand that this thing called “Divine Mercy” exists. Sounds great, and there’s a nice picture and chaplet to go with.

Problem is, my brain is wired with the perspective that rules are rules: you either follow them or you don’t, and if you don’t follow the rules you suffer the consequences. It’s difficult to process that God, who obviously knows way more than I do about how His rules are supposed to work, can watch me bend and break them and somehow still forgive me, and stretch out His hand in love to me.

And trying to apply that mercy in my own life? A friend hurts me, and my brain sets up a little chirping alarm: “Don’t trust her! Don’t forgive her! She did the wrong thing, and you have to punish her!” Please tell me I’m not the only one out there who has to leap over a giant hurdle of selfishness just to pray for someone I don’t like, much less go work in a soup kitchen or a jail ministry.

Thank heavens, there’s a particular literary gem that has helped me grasp the reality and beauty of mercy. It’s not a papal encyclical, and it’s not in the writings of a saint or mystic. It’s a nineteen-line speech in iambic pentameter from a comedy by William Shakespeare.

A bit of context: The Merchant of Venice centers around two plots with intersecting characters: a conflict between an unjust Jewish moneylender and a Christian businessman, and the fairy-tale-like courtship of the rich heiress Portia. Bassanio, who wins Portia’s hand, is best friends with the Christian businessman, Antonio, who has been caught in a shrewd trap by the Jew Shylock. The pact made between Shylock and Antonio means the latter’s death, unless the Jew can be persuaded to break his bond and save Antonio’s life.

In the courtroom, Antonio’s friends plead with or threaten Shylock. Portia (a wise and witty heroine) takes a different tack: she presents Shylock with an explanation of mercy. I’ll focus on just a few key lines here, but I strongly encourage you to read the whole speech, it’s not long.

[Mercy] is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

Wait, what? I thought mercy was all about sacrifice; giving up something that’s yours, whether time, money, forgiveness, and giving it to someone who doesn’t deserve it. Turns out, mercy is a good kind of two-edged sword; “twice blest” in Portia’s words. He who gives mercy is blessed in the giving, just as much as the recipient is blessed. That’s pretty decent incentive, as far as I’m concerned.

It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

It would seem Shakespeare had a healthy respect for Divine Mercy. Since mercy is part of God’s rule over man, Portia argues that is reason enough for man to adjust his dealings with other men accordingly. If I want to be like God Himself, which is the whole focus of the Christian life, the best way to do that is to enhance my own sense of justice with a healthy serving of mercy. I love Shakespeare’s wordplay here; mercy seasons justice.

It’s like justice is mashed potatoes and mercy is the salt. Sure, mashed potatoes taste fine on their own, but much better with even a little bit of seasoning. And who would think of serving mashed potatoes to a guest without offering him the salt shaker?

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.

Portia’s exhortation ends with this zinger. She boldly claims that all of us would be doomed to hell if it were not for God’s mercy—a fair point, since He wasn’t exactly forced by justice to send His only-begotten Son into the world to die a horrible death. Yet He did, and Christ entered the world to demonstrate the tangible reality of Divine Mercy: Mercy that will go so far as to die, lest His creatures perish. And by that death, Christ enabled us to pray for that mercy. I can look at myself, see my faults and mistakes and silliness and evil, and turn to God with tears of repentance, and beg His forgiveness. I don’t have to live in fear of His anger, because I know He loves me so deeply.

With that kind of a gift, with that love, how can we not turn to each person around us and offer that same mercy? The prayer for mercy indeed teaches us “to render / The deeds of mercy” because in the knowledge of God’s love, we are strengthened to go outside of our own narrow, hardened hearts, and the rules we enforce on others. The knowledge of our own littleness gives us the perspective and power to share the Mercy of God with each person around us, like salt on mashed potatoes.

Copyright 2016 Rebecca Willen


About Author

Rebecca is young professional who recently graduated from Christendom College. She is a book addict, Shakespeare fangirl, lover of tradition, amateur writer, proofreader, and yes, a nerd. Through love for the power and beauty of the written word, she hopes someday to work as an editor in Catholic publishing.

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