Ecclesiasticus 28.3-5 and the Problem of Mercy

Posted By on October 1, 2011

In the most recent of the series of my Notes and Queries articles on Shakespeare and the Bible, I analyzed the significance of Ecclesiasticus 28.3-5 as a core Bible verse for Shakespeare, one mentioned in some form in at least five different plays, most prominently The Tempest. Notes and Queries didn’t ask for a picture, and if I had provided one I’m not certain that they would have been kind enough to publish my analysis.

I hope so, but you never know.  Here’s what it looks like:

Ecclus. 28.3-5, from the de Vere Bible: “He wil showe no mercie to a man wch is like himself: and will he aske forgiveness of his own sinnes?” Kindness the Folger Shakespeare Library.

This is of course the most obvious Old Testament precedent for the much more familiar part of the Lord’s prayer, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” (Matt. 6.14 or Luke 11.3-4)– and when one adds references to the thought as it appears in these New Testament passages, the idea’s prominence emerges from the shadowlands of Shakespeare’s bewildering conceptual and linguistic superfluity to become a characteristic theme of the bard’s thinking.

Such overt references to particular Bible verses, moreover, belong to a much larger pattern in the Shakespearean works devoted to considering the problem of Mercy, an idea noted in the margins of the Bible.

It was an idea he wanted to transmit.

For example, when he puts the concept in the mouth of Henry V condemning the conspirators at Cambridge, he seems to have in mind a kind of double irony:

The mercy that was quick in us but late,

By your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d.

You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy.

Henry’s reference to mercy being “by your own counsel…suppress’d and killed” refers to the fact that the conspirators, now begging for their lives,  had only a few lines earlier urged harsh punishment  for a man accused only of criticizing his rule.

As it turns out, the execution of the conspirators is only a kind of practice for greater glories to come. The man who began his career as king by exiling Falstaff will end up at Agincourt killing the prisoners — a violation of the rules of war every bit as ethically problematic as the French killing the “poys.”    Like Portia herself, he’s not really the one to give lectures about mercy.

The bard is twisting and turning this problem every which way — pointing to the concept that, in the case of mercy, handsome is as handsome does. There seems to be a warning about trusting people who talk too much about how merciful they are.

But then we turn to the usage of 2 Henry VI, where the Bible reference is put in the mouth of Lord Say, about to be executed with his aristocratic comrades, it has a different resonance. Say has all the words to provoke our sympathy.  He first appeals to the mob as his “countrymen,” and then offers a paraphrase of the marked passage from Ecclesiasticus:

Ah countrymen, if when you make your prayers

God should be so obdurate as yourselves,

How would it fare with your departed souls?

The citation is ultimately ironic, since Jack Cade (yes, the same Jack Cade whose sidekick, Dick the Butcher, says “first thing we’ll do, let’s kill all the lawyers”) can’t hear Say’s point about the cycle of retribution.  Ecclesiasticus is futile; the heads go up on grisly pikes.

There’s another significant wrinkle to the story. I did not understand this when I wrote the Notes and Queries article, but now I do: the quoted extracts from 2 H. VI 4.7  are merely fragments of a larger conversation that is inflected in multiple ways by the Bible verses in question.

The question of the (no doubt) both literal and metaphoric weakness of Say’s flesh forms a dominant current from the start when Say volunteers: “These cheeks are pale with watching for your good.”  Naturally things go downhill from there, until a few lines later we have the exchange:

But. Why dost thou quiver, man?

Say. The palsy, not the fear, provokes me.

Cade. Nay, he nods at us; as who should say, “I’ll be even

With you”: I’ll see if his head will stand steadier on a

pole or no. Take him away and behead him.

The line “as who should say, ‘I’ll be even with you,'” occurring, as it does, less than twenty lines away in the same scene from the more overt reminiscences of the verse — and ending with Cade’s brutal “take him away” — suggests that Ecclus. 28.2-5 has helped to shape not just a particular line, but a whole philosophic discourse in the scene. Cade, in fact,  is enacting a parody of the marked Bible verses.

But then look what our author will do with this in Tempest.

Here those  Ecclesiasticus verses seem to have defined his concept of the troubled relationship between matter and spirit, between the fleshly magus Prospero and the airy Ariel —  the imagination personified.  Like de Vere himself –yes, in fact,  he described himself so — Prospero is  a former “Duke of Milan” and devotee of the arts. He’s too much of a humanist to compete in the new Machiavellian world of his brother Antonio.  Brute force was now to rule, and the idea that a man’s word was his pledge, was becoming an antiquated fardel preserved in wrappers of cultural mystification.

Ariel uses Ecclesiasticus 28 to offer Prospero a lecture on his own humanity:

Ariel. …your charm so strongly works them,

That if you now beheld them, your affections

Would become tender.

Prospero. Does thou think so, spirit?

Ariel. Mine would, sir, were I human.

Prosper. And mine shall.

Hast thou, which art but air, a touch, a feeling

Of their afflictions, and shall not myself

One of their kind, that relish all as sharply,

Passion as they, be kindlier mov’d than thou art?

(5.1.16-23; emphasis mine)

(Prospero may have been an old man, but he sure was  a quick study.)

The influence of Ecclesiasticus 28 on these verses from The Tempest became known to scholars via my 2009 Notes and Queries article.

About the author

Roger Stritmatter is a native liberal humorist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Contrary to rumor, he does not live on North Avenue. He does, however, work on North Avenue. A pacifist by inclination, one of his heroes is John Brown. But he thinks that Fredrick Douglass, another of his heroes, made the right decision. Stritmatter's primary areas of interest include the nature of paradigm shifts, the history of ideas, and renaissance literature, the latter a field in which he has published extensively

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