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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By Moncure Daniel Conway (1832–1907)

[The Wandering Jew. 1881.]

AMONG all these representative figures of the Venetian court-room, transformations from the flying doves and pursuing hawks, bound victims and exacting deities of ancient mythology, there is one who possesses a significance yet to be considered. That is Portia. Who is this gentle woman in judicial costume? She is that human heart which in every age, amid hard dogmatic systems and priestly intolerance, has steadily appealed against the whole vindictive system—whether Jewish or Christian—and, even while outwardly conforming, managed to rescue human love and virtue from it. With his wonted yet ever-marvellous felicity, Shakspeare has made the genius of this human sentiment slipping through the technicalities of priest-made law a woman. In the mythology of dooms and spells it is often that by the seed of the woman they are broken: the Prince must remain a Bear till Beauty shall offer to be his bride; the Flying Dutchman shall find repose if a maiden shall voluntarily share his sorrow. It is, indeed the woman-soul which has silently veiled the rude hereditary gods and laws of barbarism—the pitiless ones—with a host of gentle saints and intercessors, until the heartless systems have been left to theologians. Inside the frowning buttresses of dogmatic theology the heart of woman has built up for the home a religion of sympathy and charity.

Portia does not argue against the technique of the law. She agrees to call the old system justice—so much the worse for justice. In the outcome she shows that this so-called justice is no justice at all. And when she has shown that the letter of “justice” kills, and warned Shylock that he can be saved from the fatal principle he has raised only by the spirit that gives life, she is out of the case, save for a last effort to save him from the blind law he has invoked. The Jew now sues before a Christian Shylock. And Portia—like Mary, and all sweet interceding spirits that ever softened stern gods in human hope—turns from the judicial Jahves of the bench to the one forgiving spirit there. “What mercy can you render him, Antonio?” The Christian Gratiano interposes. “A halter gratis: nothing else, for God’s sake.” A natural appeal for the victim-loving God; but the forgiving Jesus is heard, however faintly, above the Christian, and Antonio forgives his part of Shylock’s penalty.

“Vengeance is mine,” says the deity derived by fear from the remorseless course of sun and star, ebb and flow, frost and fire. Forgiveness is the attribute of man. We may reverse Portia’s statement, and say that, instead of Mercy dropping as the gentle rain from heaven, it is projected into heaven from compassionate human hearts beneath. And heavenly power doth then show likest man’s when mercy seasons the vengeance of nature. From the wild forces above not only droppeth gentle rain, but thunder and lightning, famine and pestilence; it is man with his lightning-rod, his sympathy, his healing art, who turns them from their path and interposes a shield from their fury. When, as the two walked together in the night, Leigh Hunt looked up to the heaven of stars, and said, “God, the Beautiful,” Carlyle looked, and said, “God, the Terrible.” It was the ancient worshipper of the Laws of Nature beside Abou ben Adhem, who, loving not the Lord, yet loved his fellow-men, and sees a human sweetness in the stars. All religions, beginning with trembling sacrifices to elemental powers personified—powers that never forgive—end with the worship of an ideal man, the human lover and Saviour. That evolution is invariable. Criticism may find this or that particular deified man limited and imperfect, and may discard him. It may take refuge in pure theism, as it is called. But it amounts to the same thing. What it worships is still a man—an invisible, vast man, but still a man. To worship eternal love, supreme wisdom, ideal moral perfection, is still to worship man, for we know such attributes only in man. Therefore the Shylock-principle is non-human nature, hard natural law moving remorselessly on its path from cause to effect; the Portia-principle, the quality of Mercy, means the purely human religion, which, albeit for a time using the terms of ancient nature-worship and alloyed with its spirit, must be steadily detached from these, and on the ruins of every sacrificial altar and dogma build the temple whose only services shall be man’s service to man.