No Comment, Quotation — October 19, 2008, 6:27 am

Shakespeare’s Quality of Mercy

caravaggio-seven-acts-of-mercy

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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:
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice act iv, sc i, ll. 182-95 (1597)


These lines from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice surely figure among the most important he ever authored, incorporated into a play which in many ways is among the most problematic. The language is sweet yet sober, it has a curiously Biblical tone. The frame is dramatic, yet Shakespeare presumes to lecture to kings and posterity about how power should be used. I wonder what must be the inspiration for these lines. There are several Biblical passages in which, usually in the prophetic voice, those who hold power are admonished about its use. But one of these texts is the second Psalm, as it was rendered in English before the King James Bible, in Shakespeare’s day, in the Psalter of Archbishop Parker. These words were appointed to be read in the churches of England from 1567 through roughly 1600. Shakespeare would have heard these lines intoned dozens of times:

Of Christ ye see/ A Prophecie/ Thus Dauid spake with vs:
As merueiling/ That earthly king/ Should rage against him thus

Quare fremuerunt: Why fumeth in sight: the Gentils spite,
In fury raging stout?
Why taketh in hond: the people fond,
Uayne thinges to bring about?

The kinges arise: the lordes deuise,
in counsayles mett therto:
Agaynst the Lord: with false accord,
against his Christ they go.

Let vs they say: breake downe their ray,
of all their bondes and cordes:
We will renounce: that they pronounce,
their loores as stately lordes.

But God of might: in heauen so bright,
Shall laugh them all to scorne:
The Lord on hie: shall them defie,
they shall be once forlorne.

Then shall his ire: speake all in fire,
to them agayne therfore:
He shall with threate: their malice beate,
in his displeasure sore.

Yet am I set: a king so great,
on Sion hill full fast:
Though me they kill: yet will that hill,
my lawe and worde outcast.

Gods wordes decreed: I (Christ) wil sprede
for God thus sayd to me/e:
My sonne I say: thou art, this day,
I haue begotten the/e.

Aske thou of me/e: I will geue the/e,
to rule all Gentils londes:
Thou shalt possesse: in suernesse,
the world how wide it stondes.

With iron rod: as mighty God,
all rebels shalt thou bruse:
And breake them all: in pieces small,
as sherdes the potters vse.

Be wise therfore: ye kinges the more,
Receyue ye wisdomes lore:
Ye iudges strong: of right and wrong,
aduise you now before.

The Lorde in feare: your seruice beare,
with dread to him reioyce:
Let rages be: resist not ye,
him serue with ioyfull voyce.

The sonne kisse ye: lest wroth he be,
lose not the way of rest:
For when his ire: is set on fire,
who trust in hym be blest.

And I mean “intoned” in the literal sense. Archbishop Parker commissioned the most brilliant English composer of his age to compose his Psalter, and in 1567, Thomas Tallis delivered a simple but powerful work. Today it is not one of Tallis’s great polyphonic compositions, but the third in this series of nine Psalter tunes which has captured the imagination of the musical world and has become his best known work.

Listen to the nine tunes composed by Thomas Tallis in 1567 for the Psalter of Archbishop Parker, and especially to the third, composed in the Phrygian mode, Psalm 2: Why fum’th in fight the Gentiles spite (it appears at 1:45 in the recording, a performance by the Renaissance Singers). Then listen to the Fantasia composed, in the true high Renaissance style, by Ralph Vaughan Williams on the basis of the third tune in 1910. The performance is by an ad hoc orchestra at Indiana University in Bloomington. The text used by Tallis and Vaughan Williams treats the same subject as this Shakespeare passage: the obligation of those vested with temporal power to behave righteously, to love justice, and to show mercy to their fellow human beings. Lamentably, this lofty message has fallen away from the music, but listen carefully and you will find it.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2017

Document of Barbarism

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Destroyer of Worlds

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Crossing Guards

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“I am Here Only for Working”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Dear Rose

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Year of The Frog

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Destroyer of Worlds·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In February 1947, Harper’s Magazine published Henry L. Stimson’s “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” As secretary of war, Stimson had served as the chief military adviser to President Truman, and recommended the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The terms of his unrepentant apologia, an excerpt of which appears on page 35, are now familiar to us: the risk of a dud made a demonstration too risky; the human cost of a land invasion would be too high; nothing short of the bomb’s awesome lethality would compel Japan to surrender. The bomb was the only option. Seventy years later, we find his reasoning unconvincing. Entirely aside from the destruction of the blasts themselves, the decision thrust the world irrevocably into a high-stakes arms race — in which, as Stimson took care to warn, the technology would proliferate, evolve, and quite possibly lead to the end of modern civilization. The first half of that forecast has long since come to pass, and the second feels as plausible as ever. Increasingly, the atmosphere seems to reflect the anxious days of the Cold War, albeit with more juvenile insults and more colorful threats. Terms once consigned to the history books — “madman theory,” “brinkmanship” — have returned to the news cycle with frightening regularity. In the pages that follow, seven writers and experts survey the current nuclear landscape. Our hope is to call attention to the bomb’s ever-present menace and point our way toward a world in which it finally ceases to exist.

Illustration by Darrel Rees. Source photographs: Kim Jong-un © ITAR-TASS Photo Agency/Alamy Stock Photo; Donald Trump © Yuri Gripas/Reuters/Newscom
Article
Crossing Guards·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Ambassador Bridge arcs over the Detroit River, connecting Detroit to Windsor, Ontario, the southernmost city in Canada. Driving in from the Canadian side, where I grew up, is like viewing a panorama of the Motor City’s rise and fall, visible on either side of the bridge’s turquoise steel stanchions. On the right are the tubular glass towers of the Renaissance Center, headquarters of General Motors, and Michigan Central Station, the rail terminal that closed in 1988. On the left is a rusted industrial corridor — fuel tanks, docks, abandoned warehouses. I have taken this route all my life, but one morning this spring, I crossed for the first time in a truck.

Illustration by Richard Mia
Article
“I am Here Only for Working”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

But the exercise of labor is the worker’s own life-activity, the manifestation of his own life. . . . He works in order to live. He does not even reckon labor as part of his life, it is rather a sacrifice of his life.

— Karl Marx

Photograph from the United Arab Emirates by the author. This page: Ruwais Mall
Article
The Year of The Frog·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

To look at him, Sweet Macho was a beautiful horse, lean and strong with muscles that twitched beneath his shining black coat. A former racehorse, he carried himself with ceremony, prancing the field behind our house as though it were the winner’s circle. When he approached us that day at the edge of the yard, his eyes shone with what might’ve looked like intelligence but was actually a form of insanity. Not that there was any telling our mother’s boyfriend this — he fancied himself a cowboy.

“Horse 1,” by Nine Francois. Courtesy the artist and AgavePrint, Austin, Texas
Article
Dead Ball Situation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What We Think About When We Think About Soccer, by Simon Critchley. Penguin Books. 224 pages. $20.

Begin, as Wallace Stevens didn’t quite say, with the idea of it. I so like the idea of Simon Critchley, whose books offer philosophical takes on a variety of subjects: Stevens, David Bowie, suicide, humor, and now football — or soccer, as the US edition has it. (As a matter of principle I shall refer to this sport throughout as football.) “All of us are mysteriously affected by our names,” decides one of Milan Kundera’s characters in Immortality, and I like Critchley because his name would seem to have put him at a vocational disadvantage compared with Martin Heidegger, Søren Kierkegaard, or even, in the Anglophone world, A. J. Ayer or Richard Rorty. (How different philosophy might look today if someone called Nobby Stiles had been appointed as the Wykeham Professor of Logic.)

Tostão, No. 9, and Pelé, No. 10, celebrate Carlos Alberto’s final goal for Brazil in the World Cup final against Italy on June 21, 1970, Mexico City © Heidtmann/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Factor by which single Americans who use emoji are more likely than other single Americans to be sexually active:

1.85

Brontosaurus was restored as a genus, and cannibalism was reported in tyrannosaurine dinosaurs.

Moore said he did not “generally” date teenage girls, and it was reported that in the 1970s Moore had been banned from his local mall and YMCA for bothering teenage girls.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today