Commentary by Maria Rioux
In the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, Shylock refers to Portia as a ‘Daniel’, saying: “A Daniel has come to judgment! Yea, A Daniel! O wise, young judge, how I do honour thee!” The reference is to Daniel the Prophet, and in this paper we ask whether the description is apt: is Portia a Daniel?
Portia appears in court under the name of Balthasar, which, intriguingly, closely resembles the name given to the prophet Daniel by the Babylonians. Both are strangers in a strange land, for Daniel the prophet is a Jew among Babylonians and Portia’s Balthasar is a Paduan among Venetians. As wisdom often grows with experience, we do not expect to find it in the young. However, Balthasar is said to possess it: “I beseech you, let his lack of years be no impediment to let him lack a reverend estimation; for I never knew so young a body with so old a head.” Just as Daniel was admired and respected for his wisdom despite his youth, Balthasar surprises the court with his knowledge of the law and wisdom in applying it.
Daniel is a faithful Jew who knows the true God, obeys His laws despite difficulty and danger, and is protected and preserved by Him while in exile. He is, through his visions, the first Jew to encounter Christ and believe; in other words, the first Jew to become a Christian. We see this in his efforts to seek mercy over justice. “Break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed, that there may perhaps be a lengthening of your tranquillity.” Those who reject or misread Daniel’s prophecy are those that reject Christ, the forerunners of the Scribes and Pharisees. Shylock is just such a Jew, as we see when he misreads Portia and insists upon the letter of the law.
In the story of Susanna, Daniel unexpectedly steps forward when all seems lost and wisely judges her accusers, condemning them while saving her. Similarly, Portia, as Balthasar, enters the court when Bellario was expected. She wisely applies the letter of the law, allowing Shylock his pound of flesh, but not one drop of blood. She has used his own bond against him, just as Daniel used the discrepancies in the statements of Susanna’s accusers to condemn them.
Lastly, Daniel advises Nebuchadnezzar to be merciful: Therefore, O king, let my counsel be acceptable to you; break off your sins by practicing righteousness, and your iniquities by showing mercy to the oppressed… and pleads with God to show the same to His people despite their sinfulness:
O my God, incline thy ear and hear; open thine eyes and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name: for we do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of thy great mercy. O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive.
In the same way, with explicit references to the quality of mercy applied by both earthly kings and God Himself, Portia attempts to persuade Shylock to be merciful: The quality of mercy is not strained, it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; it blesses 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. A Daniel has indeed come to judgment.