Elizabeth Gaskell — like many Victorian writers — had a wealth of information available in her mind for ready recall whenever the occasion warranted. When reading any of her novels or short stories, the breadth of her knowledge is immediately apparent. In Ruth, she quotes from the Bible in one chapter and an obscure poem in another. But at the end of Chapter 9, she quotes that most eminently quotable of writers: William Shakespeare.
While I was not surprised that Shakespeare came up at some point in the novel, I wanted to know more about the exact reference and the placement of this reference within the story of Ruth. Where does the quotation come from? And does it hold any further significance than a few apt words for the situation?
The very last part of Chapter 9 describes how Mr Benson and Mrs Hughes, his landlady, have just rescued Ruth after her ordeal with Henry Bellingham. They have taken her into the home and agreed to care for the pitiful creature they see before them. The last paragraph of the chapter explains something very important about the characters of these two people.
It was a proof of the true love, which was the nature of both, that it never crossed their minds to regret that this poor young creature had been thus thrown upon their hands. On the contrary, Mrs Hughes called it ‘a blessing’.
‘It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes.’
The last line line there is a quotation from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. This play is famous for the scene in a Venetian court of law when Shylock — a Jewish merchant — demands his “pound of flesh” as repayment for a debt. Though the characters Antonio and Bassanio, who have made the contract with Shylock, try to pay him with a large sum of money, Shylock declares that it is the principal of the matter and not the money. Then Portia, disguised as a doctor in order to rescue her beloved Antonio, grills Shylock about the validity of his claim and exhorts him to mercy. Portia then delivers one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s speeches, which also happens to contain the quotation that Gaskell used in Ruth.
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.
This is a portion of that speech which describes how mercy is the highest quality of value in any human being, especially the powerful, and, therefore, no human being can be without it. But, Portia describes, this quality cannot be “strain’d” or forced; it must be natural and gentle. She goes on to say that every human being shows himself most like God when he or she practices mercy instead of ruthless power.
Though they are by no means the most powerful people on earth, Mr Benson and Mrs Hughes do have the power to judge Ruth and to turn her out of doors. Instead, they show the gentle mercy Portia speaks of and are thus “twice blest.” They have helped another human being and been most God-like when exercising that “gentle rain” of mercy. Unlike Shylock, Mr Benson and Mrs Hughes seem to have the innate sense of mercy of which Shakespeare writes. Gaskell truly knows how to pack her quotations with a punch.
(And if you needed a little tidbit more: the word “ruth” itself is a synonym for “mercy”!)