Portia, disguised as a lawyer in the court of Venice, declares that the bond between the money-lender Shylock and the merchant Antonio is in good legal order, and that therefore he may cut, according to that bond, a pound of flesh from the merchant’s body wherever he may please. Well, it pleases Shylock to cut it nearest to Antonio’s heart, because he has been Antonio’s enemy and he has been seeking his life, for reasons good and bad and very bad. “Then must the Jew be merciful,” Portia says. At which Shylock replies, with some surprise, “On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.”
What follows is one of the best-loved speeches Shakespeare ever wrote, and it strikes to the heart — both the heart of the play, and that hard heart that is man’s, especially when he thinks he has all the justice on his side, and so he may proceed with vengeance as he likes. The key to it is the difference between constraint and freedom, which is like the difference between law and grace, between a bond o…
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