POET'S PICK APRIL 4
William Shakespeare: Portia:
"The quality of mercy..." from
The Merchant of Venice
Selected by Margo Berdeshevsky
National Poetry Month 2008
Margo Berdeshevsky's Poetry Month Pick, April 4, 2008
from The Merchant of Venice Act 4, Scene 1
by William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.
Margo Berdeshevsky Comments:
Confession: I'd hoped to choose GB Shaw's Saint Joan—here. Her speech to her holy accusers. That poetic monologue was my first heart-burst attraction to unrhymed verse, in language that adored nature, passion, and begged mercy. I was thirteen when I read "... Bread has no sorrow for me and water no affliction. But to shut me out from the light of the sky and the sight of the fields and flowers ..." But the copyright law for those lines in toto—won't free them until 2019. Still, through the poetry of dramatic monologue, I fell in love, first, with poetry. Theatre and poetry were one, for me.
Then, I remembered lines I've been trying to know and understand, since I first read them—a year later. (Favorite is not the right word.) At fourteen, they lured me. They remained with me, for life. They say—they adore mercy, they say—they adore life. They plead for humanity, not vengeance, or any society's or individual's so-called sense of righteousness. I wanted to trust them. Struggled then, and yet, with their knife-twisting sense of conscience. They plead for mercy, not politics. A plea that one desperately wishes were heard again in our human desert—how long after Shakespeare gave those words to his wily Portia? As with so many of his words —we've heard them and heard them, and still, I know how we need to hear and have our many hearts burst from them. Still.
We return to them. Sometimes the individual speeches, as this one, are masterpieces in themselves, but profoundly upsetting in the context of the plays they live in. Such is the moral ache of this one. The contextual racism is chilling.
Often, I've wanted poetry, gentle as the rain, to change my world. "The" world. The greatest anti-war play written, so I've believed, was Henry V; but how many performances does it take for us to know it, and to act? Could Portia's words, placed elsewhere—re-shape the vengeance that bleeds across today's Middle East? On every front? Oh, I wish. (Continent after continent.)
Twenty-two unrhymed iambic lines. And a haunting repetition of the "s" sounds — like an urgent hiss of wind. (Mercy. Strained. Blesseth. Sceptre. Kings. Seasons. Justice. Deeds.) ... My ear heeds all the inner music. And a recipe for a better humanity that takes no more effort than nature's rain. Why should he be merciful, our (collective) Shylock asks. Because it's gentle. Because it's easy, Portia offers. (It's not easy. But it could be, I mull. Unstrained as the light, and the sights and inner (angel) voices that my teenage Saint Joan chose fire for, rather than perpetual imprisonment and her society's so-called justice.)
Two moments of dramatic poetry, I mull. (One, laws won't allow into public domain for more than another decade. But I find Saint Joan, and re-read it.) Recall how two women spoke to me at once, when I was very young—who plead in language that could and should change the world and the heart. And was the fictional Portia successful? In my mature readings, I understood that the push-button racism of the play and the speech, is all that could be seen, by many. I continued to re-read it, and to try to understand it. Even as a cry worth all the re-readings, for the needed kind of mercy, in our haunted times. Even as the many cry "no justice, no peace." )
I wish the quality of poetry were not strained. I return and return to the bard—to listen how. I call him a saint, quietly. For his many poet's miracles. Even for his Portia's cry for mercy, were it spoken today—to the stone minds of power—and to those who lack power, utterly. (Repeated and repeated.)
About Margo Berdeshevsky:
Margo Berdeshevsky's poetry collection, But a Passage in Wilderness, was published by The Sheep Meadow Press . Her honors include the Robert H. Winner Award from the Poetry Society of America, The Chelsea Poetry Award, Kalliope’s Sue Saniel Elkind, places in the Pablo Neruda and Ann Stanford Awards, 5 Pushcart Prize nominations (and a special mention citation in 2008 & 2009,) for works in leading literary journals including New Letters, Agni, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry Daily, Poetry International, Pool, Nimrod, Women's Studies Quarterly. She received the Ronald Sukenick/American Book Review award for innovative fiction, for "Beautiful Soon Enough," a collection of illustrated tales, forthcoming from Fiction Collective 2. Her novel, Vagrant, is also forthcoming, from Red Hen Press. She currently lives in Paris, where she is considering conversations with madame de Sévigné's ghost who lurks, maybe, in the courtyard.
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