Portia. If to do were as easy as to know what were good to
do, chapels had been churches and poor men's
cottages princes' palaces. It is a good divine that
follows his own instructions: I can easier teach
twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the
twenty to follow mine own teaching. The brain may
devise laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps
o'er a cold decree....(1.2.206-213)
Oh, how I love this play. Especially after what for me was a rather dreary slog through King John, The Merchant of Venice is a delight - the beautiful writing, lively plot and thoughtful examination of the complicated issues facing the characters felt to me like the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. Everyone loves a courtroom drama, and The Merchant of Venice, like any good story of that genre, inexorably moves toward a final showdown where the parties appear in court and the judge gives a verdict. But the play is more than that - the plot centers around money, marriage, and murder (for such is Shylock's plot against Antonio), and in each case there is only one real answer - mercy.
I chose the opening quotation - one of the very first things that we hear Portia, our wise heroine, say - as it seems to me in many ways to sum up a lot of what the play is about. Often we know what is right to do, but can we do it? This failure between thought and aspiration, hope and achievement, is seen in the contrast between Portia's beautiful Belmont and the savagery of the Rialto, the merchant's exchange in Venice: though Venetian law, we are told, is supposed to make everything just and fair, we see it instead being used to further revenge and violence, incited by racial hatred. Law - thought-through restraints that put up walls to protect people against the impulses of every passion - is in many ways the the highest example of aspiration for humanity: a teacher telling us what were good to
do. It can be twisted, though, and, as Portia points out, when the going gets rough, the hot temper leaps o'er a cold decree. When it doesn't feel right, people scramble to try to get away from the law. We see this tension again and again in this play: there are issues with trusting people to hold to their promises, pay their debts, keep their word - with money and with marriage.