I was thinking, in one of my wakeful periods last night, about 'The Merchant of Venice' - as one does. I talked to June shortly after the performance we saw. She thought it was a feminist production. Interesting, I thought last night. It's true that Portia is the epitome of filial piety, justice, mercy and faithfulness - interesting because Proverbs in the Bible personifies Wisdom, which includes all of that, as a woman (ch 3). (It personifies the opposite as woman too; so perhaps you shouldn't make too much of that!) 'But what do you make of the bit about the rings?' June asked. And it was that I mused about last night!
The bit of the play people remember and think of as the climax is the courtroom scene, where Shylock is awarded his pound of flesh, but not a drop of blood, and loses everything (except his dignity/pride faced with Christian ridicule in the Stratford production). However there's a whole act after that, which is 'the bit about the rings'. Is it just a bit of comic relief after the rather dark events of the courtroom? I don't think so. The courtroom has actually proved it humanly impossible to maintain a perfect balance between justice and mercy. Neither is actually upheld. So if justice or mercy are insufficient motives for human relationships, what else can be? Enter the commitment of love - symbolised by the rings. Here is a depth deeper than law. It's a covenant relationship freely entered into by individuals bound by something stronger and more sacred than law. Hence the rings are much more than a trifling hoop of metal. And Bassanio and Gratiano's surrendering them to the 'lawyer and his clerk' is a betrayal of the only motive which makes human relationships work. Justice alone won't. Mercy alone won't. They need a reconciling arbiter, and that is love. Which is of course what God is. The last word of the play is left to the arch cynic and joker, Gratiano, who, even if he can't resist a double entendre, at last has grasped the point:
'Well, while I live I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.'