I was reading an article in the Guardian yesterday with claimed it was Kindness Day – I haven’t found anything else to verify it, but what a lovely and underrated thing to celebrate! Almost immediately my mind ran to Portia’s famous speech:
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.
Yet, for all her pretty speechifying, Portia does not really offer mercy (or kindness) to Shylock. And any form of kindness is extremely rare in the plays I have seen so far. The King of France offers kindness to Cordelia as her father rejects her (Bid them farewell, Cordelia, though unkind. Thou losest here, a better where to find), and Edgar shows tenderness and pity to his blinded father – although everyone thinks he is mad. Coriolanus is begged by his mother to show mercy to Rome, and is killed for it (thou hast set thy mercy and thy honour At difference in thee).
Henry V shows no kindness to Falstaff, and it is taken as a mark of his majesty – his cruel words are met with I like this fair proceeding of the King’s. Richard II, out of kindness to his uncle, reduces the length of Bolingbroke’s exile, and pays for it with his crown (Uncle, even in the glasses of thine eyes I see thy grieved heart. Thy sad aspect Hath from the number of his banish’d years Pluck’d four away). Hubert in King John shows mercy for Arthur, and weaves part of a pretty tangle for the King. Lady Macbeth’s moment of mercy (Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t) forces Macbeth into regicide, and both of them into madness.
Claudio’s behaviour to Hero is beyond mere unkindness – it is outright cruelty (see also: Hamlet to Ophelia; Leontes to Hermione, Othello to Desdemona, though Othello oddly retains enough kindliness to tell his wife to pray…). Beatrice and Benedick, on the other hand, fall in love out of kindness for each other’s supposed state, and cement their affection when Benedick says “Come, bid me do anything for thee” and follows through – even when the task she requires of him is repugnant to him. So let us end on happier note:
Benedick:. A miracle! Here’s our own hands against our hearts. Come, I will have thee; but, by this light, I take thee for pity.
Beatrice: I would not deny you; but, by this good day, I yield upon great persuasion, and partly to save your life, for I was told you were in a consumption.