Recently a childhood friend wonderingly said to my sister and me, "I can't believe your family. Your father paid you to learn Shakespeare, while my father paid me for working in the fields."
That's right. Dad did pay my sister and me to learn Shakespeare. I was in the sixth grade and I earned a quarter for knowing "The Quality of Mercy" speech perfectly. And he made me recite it until I had it word for word. I can still recite it.
After Dad's death, Mom shared with us a collection of talks he gave each Sunday when he was Sunday School Superintendent. One Sunday he talked about teaching his little girls the Mercy speech. Here's what he said about it:
A famous educator was asked if limited to two textbooks what would he choose? He answered, "The Bible and Shakespeare, and when finished I would have educated men and women." In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare weaves into his story the conflicting morality of the Old and New Testaments.
The two leading characters are Antonio, the merchant, and Shylock, a Jewish moneylender. To help a friend, Antonio borrows 3000 ducats from Shylock, who hates him. Shylock charges no interest but demands as bond a pound of flesh from Antonio if the money is not paid in three months time.
When Antonio can't pay, Shylock wants his bond--the pound of flesh. The friends of Antonio ask him not to be cruel and offer three times the debt, but of course, this is after the bond is forfeit. Shylock says, "I am a Jew! Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions, cooled and warmed by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If a Jew wrongs a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrongs a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute."
Portia, Antonio's fiance comes disguised as a doctor of laws from Rome. The Duke allows her to hear the case when told she is very learned. To start it off, Portia says the Jew must be merciful. Shylock answers, "On what compulsion must I? Tell me that."
Portia then gives her mercy speech, which is pure New Testament:The quality of mercy is not strained;
It dropeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed;
It blesses 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 scepter'd sway,-
It is enthroned in the heart of kings,
It is 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. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there."
Shylock answers, "My deeds upon my head! I crave the law, the penalty and forfeit of my bond." Portia grants him his bond, but he is done in by the law and justice he craved. He can have the pound of flesh, but no blood or any more or less than a pound.
I bribed my children to learn the Mercy speech by heart. Not that they could repeat it word for word now, but that the thought and meaning would remain with them for life."
Thank you, Daddy.