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  • Reverend James Squire

The Quality of Mercy Is Not Strained.



I attended a public school in a working-class community. I have also attended four universities, some of which are the best in the land. What I learned about analyzing texts and the use of proper grammar was taught me by Mr. Merwin, my English teacher in a public school. When I think about those school days, I have come to realize that there were a few teachers who were an oasis in the desert of a community that did not value learning. Mr. Merwin was one of those. He treated my classmates and me as though we were the best and refused any barriers to our learning. He had the highest expectations.


For example, we read and analyzed very line of a Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. We did the same thing with Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It was our study of this book that I would first encounter Portia’s line, “the quality of mercy is not strained.” Our teacher brought out the meaning of Portia’s statement to Shylock by looking at the context in which it was written.


Portia’s famous speech tries to appeal to the better angels of Shylock who wants to extract a pound of flesh from Antonio, a merchant who owes him money. He could legally do this. She knows that Shylock hates Antonio and is first and foremost interested in revenge. Finally, Portia is able to make her case because she reflects “mercy helps the giver and receiver of such action, and is upheld by God.” She mentions a verse from Proverbs that “when pride comes first, dishonor follows.” She acts as a young attorney and traps Shylock with the technicality that he cannot take Antonio’s flesh without taking his blood which is murder.


A key paradigm in ethics is justice vs. mercy. If we think about it. Portia embodies mercy and Shylock embodies justice. Keeping the Merchant of Venice in mind can help us to understand Merrick Garland and Joe Biden’s approach to recent legal issues. In today’s news, we have read that the DOJ won’t prosecute Wilbur Ross after a watchdog group found he gave false testimony to Congress which is a felony. People don’t feel that Garland has been hard enough on all these Trump allies who have been found guilty of forming the swamp.


Prisoners at Guantanamo are still being held there. Biden recently had Abdul Latif Nasir, who was found innocent of all charges years ago, released after twenty years of imprisonment. Trump, in Shylock mode, refused to release him five years go. He wanted his pound of Nasir’s flesh.


The first decisions regarding those who participated in the Insurrection seem too easy for those who want more imprisonment and not to let them off lightly. Today, someone said, “That Biden’s worst mistake will be recommending Garland as AG.”


It could be that Garland’s and Biden’s approach that “the quality of mercy is not strained” just may be the better way. There is more than one way to achieve bipartisanship in leading. Biden hasn’t gotten cooperation on the bipartisan issue from the Republicans. He and Garland have achieved bipartisanship by taking a Portia like stance. Compare how Garland and Biden approach justice compared to the revenge happy Donald Trump who outdoes Shylock. I shudder to think of what would happen if the shoe was on Trump’s foot.


There are similarities here to the outcry that President Ford received when he pardoned Richard Nixon who could have received a harsh penalty.


There is something to be said about leaders who want to move on when it is in the best interest of a nation. Trust me. I want to see a harsh penalty for those in the Trump swamp. We all have a Shylock within us, but when we think of what it takes to move forward after four years of “justice fatigue” under Trump, we can see the wisdom of Biden and Garland.


We could send copies of the Merchant of Venice to everyone in our nation. We would still need a Mr. Merwin who would always pause and put his tongue in his cheek when he was about to show us something that we could not see without his guidance.


Who said that Shakespeare was irrelevant in today’s world?





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