You will abide, I hope, my looking back a bit. It comes easily to a man or woman in his/her 70s. Just ask. But if you do, be prepared for a story that may be long.
The Merchant of Venice was, back then, a staple of every high school’s English literature curriculum, sophomore year. Widely accepted, standard fare. Mrs. Goehring was doing no more than what was expected, even assigned. Shylock and company was likely a primary element of her own education when she went to high school, some faraway time before the Flood, we might have said back then.
I was just 16 and had never read Shakespeare; in fact, I’m not sure I read him much then either, sixty years ago as a high school sophomore. Probably borrowed someone’s Cliff Notes when it was time to catch up.
And I wouldn’t have thought of the lines or the play if it hadn’t been for the Writers Almanac, an arm of the old Garrison Keillor domain that every morning politely drops a poem in my heavy-burdened inbox.
“The quality of mercy is not strained,” that poem began, and, just like that, Portia’s speech came back to me a couple of mornings ago, in the same way some Sunday School ditties ceaselessly haunt my unsuspecting consciousness. I knew the line immediately, knew the source in fact, remembered the speaker. I’d just never thought of it as a poem. Should have.
Strange how such interruptions occur to people my age: all I had to do was to run over one line and I was back in school, two classrooms actually, two classrooms totally unlike each other. I learned to read Shakespeare when a tall and blessedly eccentric Anglophile, Professor John Doebler, taught the bard and his work. I liked him, liked him very much. And, unlike an earlier time in high school, in graduate school I liked Shakespeare.
I was a brand new graduate student for whom university seminars were frightful, far from the fortresses of the faith I’d inherited from umpteen generations of Dutch Calvinism. Existentially happy to have departed that camp I was, but more than a little fearful to be thus loosed in the world.
For the first month of “Shakespeare: the Early Plays,” Professor Doebler rolled out check tests every class period because, as he explained, apologetically by the way, his students had to learn how to read Shakespeare; and the only way to do that well was to pick up every bit of seemingly incidental detail because in Shakespeare, he said, glowingly, nothing was incidental, every jot and tittle vital to how the master works.
At any earlier point in my education, any teacher who would attack us with daily check tests we might have said was descended from the SS, a bit of chalk dust maybe, on his or her sleeve. I had the undergrad degree I needed to enter the university, and I had the incentive to succeed; but up until “The Early Plays,” I’d never read anyone or anything with the dogged attention I had no choice but to give to those early plays.
But I did as told. I passed the quizzes and loved the course, even learned how to read in the process. All of that came back when I read those words again, this time as a poem:
The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath:
It’s a courtroom speech uttered by a woman named Portia, who happens to be disguised as a man (lots of cross-dressers in Shakespeare). Portia had become a barrister to argue the cause of mercy for her client. She was trying to talk a dirty-dealer named Shylock out of collecting what he was, by contract, owed–a pound of human flesh.
(Seems silly to say all of that. We all read “Merchant of Venice,” right? It was required. By whom I don’t know.)
Professor Doebler’s classroom was full of passion because, for him, we were standing on holy ground. He was Anglican, fittingly, a man who made the already rich early plays, richer still. In the fall of 1972, I’d read the speech over and over again to let it in to my consciousness. Today, it’s in my head and in my heart. Nothing but beautiful.
It was early morning, still dark outside my window when the “Quality of Mercy” speech appeared on the screen and brought me back not to the play itself but to an illustration Professor Doebler used to communicate the essence of Portia’s argument. It was an aside, meant to feature the moral conflict at the heart of the speech, a tangential story that he thought would illustrate the leaden authority of justice and quickening impulse of mercy.
Doebler’s story came back joyfully. It went like this. People say Queen Elizabeth I, “the Virgin Queen,” had learned as a child to distrust emotions, “feelings.” She often appeared more callous than she might have been. Her great strength, in fact, was the very stony carriage that the absence of a beating heart seemed to create in her.
Here’s the story—well, my memory of it anyway as explained in a class I sat in almost 50 years ago. When, as punishment for treason, Queen Elizabeth ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, her distant cousin, justice clearly demanded Elizabeth’s signature. The queen had to officially order the execution of Mary Queen of Scots before her rebellious cousin would lose her head.
Professor Doebler said members of the English court who witnessed Queen Elizabeth’s fateful determination claimed that when the Virgin Queen signed the order to put her seditious cousin to death, the otherwise iron lady shed a very notable tear. She said nothing, didn’t go so far as to weep; but the court took note of a single tear that ran, untouched, down her royal cheek. That tear was sufficient to verify the quality of mercy in their iron-hearted queen. It spoke volumes. Thus, Doebler said, the simultaneous claims of justice and mercy shown as “an attribute to God himself.”
He loved that story, as did I apparently—apparently, because it came back as if out of nowhere that dark morning Portia’s courtroom lines appeared on my computer screen. It’s entirely possible either or both of us got the facts wrong, but if that’s true I don’t want to know. Throughout my life forever after, when justice and mercy go to war, as they so often do, that lone tear on the Queen’s cheek is what I see.
What teachers and preachers understand as inescapable is that sometimes, for good or ill, we teach much more than the lesson plans say to students who learn much more than we think. There’s a level of mystery and magic in what we do, and it’s humbling.
Don’t ask me for a plot outline of The Merchant of Venice. I can’t help thinking that “The Merchant of Venice” is no longer on the required reading list for high school sophomores. After all, what I’ll not forget about the play is Shylock’s ethnicity. . .well, that and one penitential tear.
What’s more, as the play’s only Jewish character, it’s not hard to see him victimized by prejudice. Not only that, but Shylock’s own redemption in the play comes on one condition—that he convert to Christianity. I don’t imagine “Merchant” abides any longer in a standard literature curriculum for high school sophomores. Portia is risky, I suppose, like Huck.
Outside my window, the sky brightens slowly, but that morning, with just a few lines of Shakespeare, I time-machined back to a classroom, where I listened to a sweet scholar perfectly delighted to tell us one of his all-time favorite stories about justice and mercy, a story I learned that morning by heart.
But that other teacher, most of a decade earlier, tried to teach the play when I was a different student, a kid who thought reading Shakespeare cruel and unusual punishment when far more important events loomed on the weekend—Friday night ball games against the Cedar Grove Rockets, and the cheerleader who would rub the steam from the window of their soda-fountain hangout in order to spot the silver Impala waiting for her just outside across the street, its engine, like mine, purring.
I first read Portia’s speech in high school, long before I knew that “strained” is short for “constrained.” No matter. Somehow, I knew what the line meant: that we simply couldn’t give away too much mercy. No one could. Even though the stock was inexhaustible, an eternity of mercy, the gift itself, never demanded, always offered, was very precious.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath.
Mostly, however, I was bored. Mrs. Goehring, the schoolmarm, was the kind of teacher we thought slipped conveniently into a desk drawer when we left the classroom, as much a function of the school as the 50-minute bell.
From high school I remembered Portia’s speech too, not because of the teacher but because of the teaching. Critics claim Shakespeare was retooling Deuteronomy 32:2, but I don’t remember knowing that or being told that was true. I was 16 years old, but I knew that something eternal was being aired in that play, something of God and an abundance of mercy you could not exhaust, even if you tried, even if we all did.
It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
And when you do offer mercy, strangely enough you become, with the gift, as blessed as the recipient, an incredible bargain.
Somehow, between ball games and girlfriends, one day in sophomore English, I came to understand that the idea in that speech harmonized with my faith, something I knew just as little about back then. Despite my limitations as a student, for a moment, just a moment, I knew those lines made beautiful sense.
So, when they appeared early in the morning, unbeckoned, a couple mornings ago, almost 60 years later, I remembered learning something profound, almost by accident, in sophomore English too.
‘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;
Nothing could have been farther from my mind right then than English royalty. Besides, I knew enough American history to know we’d fought King George. Brit monarchs were out-and-out hooligans.
But somehow I remembered that classroom too when I read those words, because on my road to adulthood, I understood that it behooves the high-and-mighty, and others, to keep a supply of mercy right beside our thrones. Strangely enough, we may well be most blessed by giving it away—mercy that is, which is to say charity, which is to say love, which is to say, too, I remember thinking, forgiveness–all of that.
Portia, like Shakespeare, had far more in mind than a courtroom judge; the two of them were talking about me and every kid in that 1964 classroom, talking about the blessings–and requirements–of faith. I was still a kid, but I got that.
It is an attribute to God Himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
When it comes to justice, you can always season it with mercy because mercy is always there, dropping like a single royal tear. The opportunities for forgiveness, given and even undeserved, are never exhausted.
I had stumbled on something of eternal worth, but a ball game was coming up, I’m sure, and a Friday-night date. The idea that someday I might actually teach literature to distracted kids like me was out beyond my imaginative reach. That I might teach was a possibility; there were lots of teachers in my family. But I just wanted to coach.
Mrs. Goehring—may she rest in peace–knew nothing of what that jock in the back of the class was discovering in words she’d assigned us from Portia’s courtroom speech; but that morning in sophomore English, the schoolmarm won a game she didn’t really know I was playing. The ball games are long gone, but the lines of that speech showed up on my screen and then in a haze of memory just a day or two ago.
The east looks all buttery this morning, the sun still hiding beneath the horizon. It’ll be here soon. The darkness has slipped away in perfect silence. The Yanktons who once lived here, on principle, opened their tipis to the east to welcome the dawn, the new day, a religious thing.
School buses run up and down the road now, early morning. Another school year is a month old.
This morning, looking east, I’m greatly thankful for a few lines of pure poetry that conjured up a couple of classrooms I might well have believed to be just about totally forgotten.
“The quality of mercy is not strained. . .’
Not so. Ever. What a blessing.