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Examination Questions on The Merchant of Venice

Question: What is it in the characters themselves that enables Shakespeare to satisfy our ideas of retributive justice while permitting Othello and Lear and Hamlet to perish and yet letting Shylock and lago live?

Answer: The activity or inactivity of conscience, the distinguishing glory of Man. Its active working in Othello, Hamlet, and Lear causes them to realize and to repent bitterly the wrong done by them, thus forming in itself the sharpest punishment which could be inflicted. So that, while it is in full accordance with retributive justice that they should perish, yet the mercy which is ever granted to those that truly repent is shown in the fact that death was the thing most desirable to them. Desdemona has met with her death at Othello's own hands; Cordelia has perished in the attempt to aid her father; and Ophelia has been brought to an untimely grave chiefly through Hamlet's treatment of her.

Any one of these three men, to find happiness, must find it in the life hereafter; and in view of their deep repentance, it is the very refinement of retributive justice to keep them no longer in this world of suffering and sorrow. With Shylock and Iago the case is widely different. In the pride of individual strength and intellect, they have with malice aforethought committed crimes the most heinous against their fellow-men; nor even after their downfall does that same pride permit them to acknowledge or to strive to redress the evil which they have done. So that it becomes the truest justice and the most efficacious punishment to humble and to mock them before the eyes of all mankind, and to leave them to drag out a miserable existence in all the wretchedness and humiliation of conscious impotency.

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How to cite this article:
Miller, Bessie Porter. Shakespeare Examinations. Ed. William Taylor Thom, M. A. Boston: Ginn and Co., 1888. Shakespeare Online. 10 Aug. 2010. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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