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 Pieta (Mounts of Piety) existent in Italy since 1462 to counter Jewish usury.
Alessandra Marzola, professor of English Literature now retired, has taught at the universities of Bergamo, Torino and Parma. She has published and edited books on Shakespeare; twentieth-century British Theatre; ‘Englishness’ in the twentieth century; and literature, war and violence in twentieth-century Britain. Her books on Shakespeare include: L’impossibile puritanesimo di Amleto (1986), La parola del mercante (1996), Otello: Passioni (2015), and, as editor: L’altro Shakespeare (1992) and The Difference of Shakespeare (2008). She is also the co-author, with Davide Del Bello, of Shakespeare and the Power of Difference (2011).