The Quality of Mercy
By Laura Schiller
Based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
"Did you finish that stupid play yet?" asked Nog.
Jake smirked, letting his feet dangle as he leaned his arms on the bottom rail of the corridor corner overlooking the promenade. Nog, sitting next to him in the same position, scowled back.
"Why is it that every time you don't understand something, you call it stupid?" Jake teased.
"Shut up, Hoo-mon. So did you read it or not?"
Nog could pronounce the word 'Human' perfectly; Jake knew it, and Nog knew that he knew it; like many Ferengi, he simply said it that way when he wanted to annoy the 'Hoo-mons' in question.
"Yeah, I read it," said Jake, with a pointedly casual shrug, just to illustrate how easy he had found reading Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice. Nog needn't know just how tricky even fellow Humans found the antiquated English of seven hundred years ago.
"And … what did you think?" Nog turned his bright black eyes to Jake in what was meant to be an appealing look. It had become a habit for the literary-minded Human boy to try to explain Mrs. O'Brien's reading assignments to an often baffled Ferengi.
Instead, Jake sighed and reasted his head in his arms. The holovid version he had watched was still fresh in his mind.
"I'm so sorry for Shylock," he said.
"Me too," said Nog. "Sort of. At least, from what I could understand."
Jake shot him a surprised look. He knew that compassion was not too high on the average Ferengi's list of values.
"You … uh … you did get the whole story, right?"
"Even the part where Shylock actually went to court to get the, uh … pound of flesh from Antonio?"
Nog screwed up his face and sighed in sympathy. "I know! A pound of flesh from one of the city's most powerful merchants? He could've made a fortune!"
Jake was beginning to feel queasy. He had the uncomfortable conviction that he and Nog were talking about entirely different things.
"What are you talking about?"
Nog rolled his eyes in a 'don't-you-know-anything?' expression, the one copied from his uncle Quark.
"At the funeral auction," he explained. "Don't Humans … ?" Catching sight of jake's horrified expression, he said quietly: "Oh. I guess you don't."
"Yeah. When a Ferengi dies, you see, the pieces of his body are put up for sale in little decorative boxes. The richer he is, of course, the bigger the auction. It's to recompense the family for the loss of income, you know, and also for the buyers to have a memento of the dead person. So you see, Shylock could have chopped up the pound and sold it in little pieces for much more than the – what was it? – three thousand ducats, plus interest, that he lost. Smart guy, actually."
For a moment, Jake thought he was going to be sick, especially when Nog's small brown hand began to make chopping motions in the air. Then he wanted to laugh. Talk about a culture clash – he wondered how often his father had to deal with this from foreign diplomats.
"No, see, Nog, you got it all wrong," he said, taking a deep breath to explain. "For one thing, we Humans do not have funeral auctions. We bury our dead people, or cremate them, or jettison them into space, but not … ugh!"
"Then what did Shylock want it for?" asked Nog.
"For revenge. He wanted Antonio dead, that's all. The Christians had been persecuting the Jews for centuries. Antonio and his friends insulted him, spat on him in public, all because he belonged to a different religion. And then, there was Antonio, just strutting in and asking for a loan as if nothing had happened. And Shylock grabbed the opportunity."
"Never let your enemy hold a debt over you," Nog muttered, quoting either a Rule of Acquisition or his uncle. "Antonio had it coming. I mean, how stupid can you get?"
"What?" The Ferengi threw up his hands with his best look of innocent confusion.
"You don't mean that he actually deserved to be carved up like a turkey in that courtroom?"
"He signed the deal, didn't he? He knew what he was getting into."
"He had three ships coming," said Jake. "Just one of them would've brought enough cargo to pay Shylock back. What are the odds all three of them would get lost? And besides, Shylock said it was a joke."
Nog snorted. "Yeah, right!"
"Well, it's easier to believe than that he actually meant it. For a Human, anyways. It really wasn't a sane thing to do,you know."
"Hmm. I guess."
They sat together silently for a while, contemplating the story. Jake was a little embarrassed at the way Nog was poking holes into his deeply held opinions about the play; he felt he had to defend Shakespeare's work somehow, on behalf of his species.
"Mrs. O'Brien's gonna ask us about the 'theme' again, isn't she?" said Nog suddenly, glowering down at the crowds of shoppers on the promenade as if they were responsible for the peculiarities of Human schoolteachers.
"So what is it?"
Jake shrugged. The theme … one thing he had always found about Shakespeare's play was that they were complicated. You couldn't reduce them to just a few words.
"Hmm … I dunno … "
He thought about Portia's speech – The quality of mercy is not strained, / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven …He liked Portia, the noblewoman disguised as a lawyer to argue for Antonio's life; she had a warm heart and a razor-sharp wit. He wondered if it was strange for him to feel for the characters on both sides of the debate – the lady of mercy and the heartbroken old man bent on revenge – but he did.
"I'd say," he began slowly, "That it's about justice and mercy … and how they don't always necessarily go together. Shylock's bond was legal, but it wasn't right, you see? It was Portia who saved them both, really. She used Shylock's own letter-of-the-law attitude against him – because the bond didn't mention blood, he wasn't allowed to draw Antonio's blood, so she caught him there. But, you see – " He fixed his companion with level, dark eyes, to make sure he was listening. "If she'd had a mentality like Shylock's, they would've had him executed. Instead she spoke up for him and made sure the Duke spared his life, and he also got to keep half his savings. Out of mercy"
"Half his savings? That's not what I'd call merciful."
"That's not so bad, considering. I just wish they hadn't made him convert … that part always bothers me."
The Siskos were not a religious family; Jake had been raised to make up his own mind whether or not he wanted to join a faith group. So far, he hadn't. However, the idea of Major Kira, for instance, bereft of her earring and forbidden to pray to the Prophets or visit their temples was an uncomfortable one.
"If the people around Shylock had just been merciful to him earlier!" he said out loud, giving the metal railing a thump with one hand. "Instead of hating on him just because he didn't eat pork and used a different language to pray! He was a sentient being just like the rest of them – he didn't deserve the life he had anymore than Antonio deserved to die."
As he closed his eyes, he saw that old man in the holovid, his red Jewish hat blazing on top of a face gray with misery, raging at his tormentors in the streaming rain.
"Hath not a Jew eyes?" he quoted softly."Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? … If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?"
He looked down at his brown hands on the silvery metal rail, and then at Nog with his bald head, enormous ears and pointed teeth. He didn't want to know what Shakespeare's audience, the Londoners of seven hundred years ago, would have done to the two of them. He felt deeply grateful to be living in the twenty-fourth century.
"I always knew you Hoo-mons had a violent streak," said Nog, his round face unusually shadowed. "But that's bad … every Ferengi knows that it doesn't matter what shape and color his client is or to whom he prays, as long as he has the latinum."
Jake was too worn out from their discussion to resent that remark, especially since it was true.
"Why do you think Starfleet was founded?" he said simply, echoing words his father had taught him. "To explore. To connect. To learn from strangers and make friends with them, instead of hating what we don't understand. To make sure we don't give in to that 'violent streak' anymore."
Jake and Nog exchanged a look. That was all. Nog had not picked up Ferengi machismo from his father and uncle for nothing; he was not about to indulge in demonstrations of affection, verbal or otherwise. They both knew, however, how thankful and proud they were of being friends – disapproving fathers, culture clashes and arguments notwithstanding. And all because of that quality of mercy.
"Okay," said Nog, scrambling to his feet. "Enough. If I'm not back at the bar in," he pulled his timepiece out of his pocket, "One minute, Father's gonna make me scrub the floor by hand."
"So, after your shift, wanna play baseball in the holosuite?" Jake extricated his lanky frame from the corner and looked down hopefully at his friend; he never stopped trying to convert Nog to his favorite sport, though they both knew it was a losing battle.
"Just one game – if you let me copy your World War III notes."
They shook hands on it, nodded to each other and went off in opposite directions, Nog still muttering lines from the 'stupid play' as he went.
Greenblatt, Stephen (General Editor) et al. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2008.
The quality of mercy, etc: Act 4, Scene 1, verse 179-180
Hath not a Jew eyes, etc: Act 3, Scene 1, verse 49-51, 54-56