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« Quote of the Week | Main | On Illegal Immigration »
Sunday
Apr022017

Health Care Reform, by William Shakespeare

The battle over the repeal of Obamacare is in a ceasefire, but it is hardly over. And there is still immigration reform, and a Supreme Court nomination, and who knows what other political melees pending.

This time, rather than expound my own views on politics, I thought I would allow a few words from an old friend.

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....
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.

          -- William Shakespeare,
              The Merchant from Venice
              Act IV, Scene 1, ll. 182-200

Here Shakespeare, in one of his greatest speeches, makes a heartfelt case for justice tempered with mercy.

But he is after all Shakespeare. Which is to say, messy. Shortly after the character Portia delivers this sparkling speech, she uses the law to strip the Jew Shylock of half his fortune and force his conversion to Christianity. To make things worse, Portia is not even a judge, but instead a wealthy heiress fraudulently posing as a judge. Any legal decision she renders as a fake judge is illegal, and thus hardly an act of mercy.

Shakespeare's audience would have found this hilarious, but today the humor is tempered by the cruel and anti-semitic treatment Shylock receives. Yes, Shylock is a villain and yes, he does try to kill one of the main characters. But for all their boasting about superior Christian values, the Christians in the play do not exactly live up to their Christian values when they mete out punishment.

Portia admits as much in the first act, when she says, "I can easier teach twenty what were good than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching." That is, it is easier to teach others right from wrong than to follow the teaching yourself.

But then, that is the point of mercy, isn't it? "In the course of justice, none of us should see salvation" in Portia's speech means that if God is just, we have no chance of escaping punishment. Justice has very little meaning without mercy, because if all of us were punished fairly every time we did wrong, we would all be in jail -- or worse.

As Shakespeare argues, far from being a sign of weakness, mercy is a sign of strength: "Mercy is above this scepter sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute of God himself."

If I were in charge of health care reform, I would, like Shakespeare, be more concerned with mercy than justice. And should I fail, I should seek mercy myself, and then make a second attempt.

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