Pity Silenced

Economies of Mercy in The Merchant of Venice

in Critical Survey
Restricted access

While the mercantile value of mercy in The Merchant of Venice has been often highlighted, the diminished role of pity has received scant attention. This article argues that the ways in which mercy is shown to subsume and eventually incorporate pity throw light on the play’s negotiation of contentious religious and political approaches to the spectres of poverty and/or impoverishment that threaten the emerging mercantile economy. A re-reading of relevant scenes retraces the Catholic implications of the safety-net potential of pity which, unlike the Protestant worldly pity of The Sonnets, here seems bound for repression. In Portia’s final donation to the merchants of Venice even the lingering allusions to Catholicism are neutralized and put to the service of vested interests: a conflation of Christian and Jewish usury that cuts across all religious divides; such allusions are possibly reminiscent of the Monti di Pietà (Mounts of Piety) existent in Italy since 1462 to counter Jewish usury.