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…
This speech (Act IV, scene 1) from The Merchant of Venice, given by Portia in disguise as a boy lawyer (and Bassanio doesn’t even recognize her!), may be one of Shakespeare’s most famous. In the play, as we know, Shylock, a Jewish moneylender, and Antonio, a merchant waiting for his ships to come in, make a bargain, one part of which is that if Antonio doesn’t pay on time, Shylock gets to collect one pound of his flesh. Antonio’s ships don’t come in, the case is taken before the Duke of Venice, and Portia appears in disguise to solve the legal issues. She goes immediately to Shylock and speaks this speech to him.
“Mercy,” she continues,
[I]s 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.
Why am I quoting Shakespeare again? Folks, just look around. We’re a month from the 2020 election. Listen to the TV news (though I suggest that we do not listen to The Faux News Channel). Watch a few of the Zoom rallies. Read the blogs, the social media posts, the newspapers. Listen to the speeches by the presidential candidates and by candidates for seats in the Senate and House of Representatives. Pay attention to what these politicians old and new are saying this month.
Are we hearing anything about the quality of mercy? Anything merciful? As I’m writing this in late August, denial is filling the air, making it harder for us to (at least metaphorically) breathe freely. The pandemic is getting worse, not better. We’re still out of work, our unemployment “benefits” are chancy, and our families are still hungry. Some of our children are being sent back into classrooms without masks or other protections. There’s still no live theater, no live concerts, no sports with fans in the stands. Idiots are gathering in protests and rallies and raucous parties and not wearing masks or social distancing or showing any care for anything but what they think is “correct” or fun. (I wonder if any of these folks have ever heard the word “mercy.”) We’ve been listening to too many people expressing misogyny, systemic racism, xenophobia, selfishness, and stupidity. The Orange T. Rex is still imitating his mentor, Roy Cohn (the most unmerciful human being that ever lived): he’s lying, attacking truth-tellers and reporters, and showing his ignorance of science, reality, and everything else.
So here’s my idea for this month. Well, actually, for days, weeks, months, and years. Let’s revive the quality of mercy. Let us be merciful, even to people with whom we strongly disagree. As Portia tells Shylock—and us—mercy “droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath./ It is twice blest;/ It blesseth him that gives and him that takes….” Look up into the sky. The sun and the moon are still shining. Birds are still flying. Trees are still growing. Can we say that Mother Nature is merciful? I think She mostly is. Look around your neighborhood or city. Food banks are still feeding hungry families. People are still donating to people in need. Well, yes, I don’t want to be naïve and stupid and say all’s right with the world when it obviously isn’t all right, but let’s try this: let’s try to tease out examples of merciful behavior in the world around us. Let’s try to spot tiny drops of mercy’s gentle rain touching both those who give and those who receive.
I am, alas, feeling pretty apocalyptic today. I’m not hearing much good news. Friends, excuse me—I gotta go out right now and look for that gentle rain. I have to consciously look for that earthly power of mercy and find it in small, mostly hidden, places. I have to remember that the grass keeps growing, that people keep caring about and for other people. It have to remind myself that the gentle rain of mercy will fall on us and somehow nourish us.
Friends, we all need to look for that gentle rain. But it may be hard to see. Where are you finding it? Any floods of mercy? Any trickles? Every drop counts! What drops of mercy can you see today?
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the Neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.