Shakespeare Was Wrong

By Jack Canfora

“The quality of mercy,” wrote The Bard in his anti-Semitic romantic romp, The Merchant of Venice, “is not strained.” However, in my experience, the quality of mercy is often very strained indeed. Strained past to the point I think that, despite intense physical therapy, it may be out for the season.

I mean, I’d certainly like to think that the quality of mercy – OK let’s be specific – MY mercy, you know, droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, like it does, yada, yada, yada, yada. And there have been times, in a self-congratulatory mood, I’ve patted myself on the back for the relative lack of strain on my mercy. “See, look how unstrained my quality of mercy was when the waiter took so long to bring my bill, I can only assume he’d taken an online course in the interim. I would even go so far as to say the particular quality of mercy I just displayed would become the monarch (pick any you’d like) better than his/her/crown. Good for me.”

But this week, my Schadenfreude has outpaced my Shakespeare by a considerable margin. For over four years (how can it be only that?), many of us have endured daily irritations, infuriation, and even periods of inexpressible shame at what’s happened under the aegis of my government. There’s no need to recite the litany. Recalling the grammar and spelling mistakes alone could set my eye to twitching, let alone the egregious lapses in basic human empathy.

A segment of my fellow citizens only compounded the issue. For every action I found nauseating, they found gleeful. It went far beyond politics. It reached down into our basic essences, held them up to the light, and found them seemingly alien to one another.

As if this weren’t distressing enough, There was, at bottom, an ambient, unnamable exhaustion I felt constantly. The Coronavirus certainly didn’t help, and raised that noise to a higher pitch and volume, but it had been there for longer than I can remember. I almost can’t remember not having it.

And then, on Saturday, all the clouds that hung over our lives seemed to part. There was crying, there was rejoicing; there were spontaneous parties and dancing in the streets of America’s cities. It’s like when Dorothy killed the Wicked Witch, and all of us Munchkins’ world went from black and white to color. Even for those of us not in the Loillipop Guild (who, FYI: are totally stuck up jerks, anyway. And it’s totally who you know that determines how you get in. Don’t get me started.) It would’ve felt soooo deeply, Germanically satisfying to rub it in the faces of those who aligned against us. And I’d argue we’d have every right to.

But then, I realized, if there’s any hope moving forward, after all, like Dorothy found out, killing the Wicked Witch was only the start of her journey, someone has to be the group to stop the pattern. That a sense of getting even, so to speak, like so many things in life that leave one feeling giddy in the moment, leaves a real S.O.B. of a hangover. And just like other narcotics, it can be highly addictive.

I can’t hold it against anyone who reveled in the defeat of those who stood up for racism, cruelty, and a general lack of empathy. And let’s face it, there are many, many people whose cause for fury and indignation was based on real pain and mistreatment. My ire was merely philosophical. So, I can’t instruct anyone on how to behave. I can only try to remember Linclon’s words about the “better angels of out nature,” and try to heed them, as hard as that is. Not only because it’s the “right” thing to do, at least as some would have it. But because of something else Lincoln once warned us:

“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia…could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”

I believe that’s true now as it was then. And so I will try to opt for kindness, for some kind of common ground. I will no doubt fall short along the way. But still, I’ll keep trying. But don’t let Shakespeare fool ya. The quality of mercy is strained. For me, at least. As strained, and uncomfortable as a middle school dance. Nonetheless, the music keeps playing, and the dance goes on.

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10 thoughts on “Shakespeare Was Wrong

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  1. Jack, this is a well-written and balanced perspective of how to be a good winner. I have a policy never to hate anyone, but the last four years have caused me to fail to live up to this policy. I have found myself wishing all sorts of calamities to befall a certain orange-haired misanthrope. I decided to settle on wishing he would go away and play golf indefinitely. Is that too mean-spirited?

    I believe that the hardest thing we will need to do in order to solve our many problems is to learn to work together again. I think the “unity” message is the right message for our time.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Forgiveness. It’s a value I like to think I hold close to my heart but in reality has gone begging on more occasions than I care to admit. Being the bigger man means dropping our pride. Seeing through the labels and understanding that in different shoes – with a different upbringing – we might not be any different to those you call enemies. Thanks Jack. Another great post

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting! Something I’ve often wondered about is the limits of mercy. I would’ve agreed with you in saying yes, our mercy can be strained because we’re human. However, before accepting that it’s being strained, I think we should also look to whether that mercy was being misdirected, consequently being strained faster than it should’ve been.

    I think it makes more sense to give an example. Someone does wrong. We let it slide and hope to settle it compassionately, but they resist and do it again. How many times do we let it go? We didn’t know our boundaries, and so we didn’t see an end. I feel like mercy is as much about ourselves as it is others. We’re not sure of what we are and aren’t willing to let go and our responses to different shortcomings, and so we direct it to all the places that leave us drained without relief, leaving none left for those places that deserve it.

    But yeah, I’m not faulting those who they did what they could to show compassion but found they couldn’t anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I dropped over from Hetty’s site. I’m a centrist, I have no “side” and have been around to know politics and politicians, winners and losers are the result of our country’s 12-second attention span. Yesterday’s criminals and their misbegotten “mandates” and failures are forgotten sooner than a righteous morning dump after the spritz of Glade. But this bullshit right here – “those who stood up for racism, cruelty, and a general lack of empathy.” is no better than the arrogant, imperious, intolerant posture of those you condemn. And is at the basis of what is wrong with both sides of the American abyss. Name-calling from one side is somehow more enlightened than another? In an election cycle where the only platform was personalities? Maybe a little in there for a catastrophe of a “health care system” that by its structure created an arbitrary caste system? Come on. We can do better than this. If it strains your mercy so hard to embrace your fellow countrymen beyond the sloganeering and hype, then stick to the shallowness of not bitch slapping your slow waiter. We were put here to heal each other, not throw 70 million people into a pile of unworthiness without understanding they might be more than the denounced puppet. How about for now I put you in the pretend liberal as long as it’s comfortable and your check is on time Uncle Tom Me Too pile. Okay with you?

    The tell? Your minor rant on privilege followed by the conceit of pardoning your waiter. Politics and name-calling haven’t made everyone too blind to read through quasi-academic circuitous rhetorical posturing. “The Merchant of Venice” is about people, and a historically accurate presentation of their judgement laden treatment of one another. Four hundred and twenty-some years ago. Could have been written today. Like your post, eh? Good luck with that mercy thing. Pray you don’t ever need a very deep well of it.


  5. Yes mercy has not been the natural course to take after this four year fiasco. Yet the more I focus on this issues I defend rather than the personal enemies I abhor, the easier it gets to forget and forgive.


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