The quality of mercy is not strained

Mladen Dolar

The Merchant of Venice pits against each other two kinds of logic: on the one hand Shylock, the merciless usurer, the miser, the Jew, extorting a pound of flesh to collect his debt; on the other hand Portia, the harbinger of Christian charity and mercy. Shylock, a figure announcing capitalist modernity, would thus stand for the cruel and ruthless part of the budding capitalism, accumulation and exploitation, based on interests and extracting the pound of flesh — Marx often referred to him in this light. He is inscribed in the long line of misers, stretching back to Plautus and forth to Molière’s Harpagon, Balzac’s Gobsec and finally Dickens’s Scrooge, the last miser who miraculously converted to charity and mercy. Portia seems to stand for a pre-modern logic of mercy, a magnanimous free gift not expecting anything in return, yet a gift which opens up a debt that cannot be repaid. In a historical reversal Portia could be seen as the figure announcing the new stage of capitalism, the economy of endless debt, of being at the mercy of an unfathomable Other, constantly falling short, unable to acquit one’s debt, grateful for one’s means of survival. Maybe one could read Shakespeare’s parable as a two stage-scenario: first the economy of avarice conditioning accumulation and extortion, then the economy of mercy and infinite debt.