‘The quality of mercy is not strained’: this memorable speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is spoken by Portia, who has disguised herself as a male lawyer in order to defend Antonio – the title character of the play – from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender who has demanded a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio in exchange for an unpaid debt. Portia’s ‘quality of mercy’ speech sees her appeal (or attempt to appeal) to Shylock’s merciful disposition, although she ultimately fails, because he hasn’t got one.
Before we analyse the ‘quality of mercy’ speech in more detail, here’s a quick reminder of the background to the speech.
There are two main plot strands to The Merchant of Venice, both closely intertwined. The first involves Portia, the wealthy heiress of Belmont, who decides that she will marry whichever suitor picks the right casket when faced with a choice of three (made of gold, silver, and lead). The second involves a loan the Jewish moneylender, Shylock, makes to Antonio, the merchant of the play’s title. These two plot lines are connected because Antonio borrows money from Shylock in order to help out his friend, Bassanio, who wishes to finance a trip to Belmont to try his hand at Portia’s ‘three caskets’ trial.
The terms of the loan are as follows: Antonio will repay the money to Shylock when his ships return from their voyage; if he fails to pay up then, Shylock will be entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships are declared lost at sea, he cannot repay the debt to Shylock, who promptly demands his pound of flesh. The phrase ‘pound of flesh’ has, of course, become proverbial and entered common use, used to refer to an unreasonably high demand made of someone.
These two threads run through the play, becoming united towards the end of the play, when Portia disguises herself as a male lawyer, Balthazar, in order to defend Antonio against Shylock’s knife. In Act 4 Scene 1, during the courtroom scene, Portia delivers the speech which has become one of the most famous in all of The Merchant of Venice.
Let’s go through the speech bit by bit, summarising its content and analysing its features.
The quality of mercy is not strained,
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.
Portia (disguised as Balthazar) tells Shylock, and the court, that mercy is an essential human quality. Being kind and forgiving towards those over whom we have some power is a noble pursuit. Note Shakespeare’s clever use of ‘strained’ here: mercy is ‘not strained’ in that it is doesn’t need to be forced, but nor is it constrained (or, indeed, restrained) in most of us. It is as natural as rainfall – which, of course, falls from ‘heaven’, where God resides.
There is something noble about being merciful, because you treat those ‘beneath’ you – those over whom you have power – kindly when you could easily do others. Mercy is ‘twice blessed’ because the person you are merciful towards is thankful for your mercy, but the one bestowing the mercy is ‘blessed’ too – by God. It’s also true that we often feel better about ourselves if we are kind towards others and show them mercy.
At the same time, of course, there is something ironic in Portia’s rhetorical recourse to Shylock’s innate sense of mercy. If mercy is such a natural quality within us, why does he need to be reminded of it? If it is ‘not strained’ but freely given, why is the court case happening at all?
The answer, of course, is that Portia is cleverly – and rhetorically – hinting to Shylock that mercy is a natural human impulse which mirrors God’s mercy towards us. So if he refuses to act mercifully towards his debtor, Antonio, then Shylock is not only suggesting he is unnatural or abnormal, but also not following God’s example.
’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
When the most powerful people in society – such as kings and queens – show mercy, it is even more significant, because it would be so easy for a monarch not to show mercy towards their subjects. But again, Portia cleverly suggests to Shylock that mercy in a monarch is a natural and becoming quality, suiting them even more than the crown upon their head.
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.
Similarly, a king’s sceptre – the ornamental staff which he carries with him on ceremonial occasions – may symbolise his power here on earth (‘temporal power’ as distinct from spiritual or divine power), and this makes people ‘dread’ and go in ‘awe’ of their king; but mercy is an even higher and nobler attribute than power.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute to God Himself;
Continuing the throne-king motif, Portia argues that God, too, shows the power of mercy. He is willing to forgive us for our sins, so he is merciful towards us.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this:
When justice is ‘seasoned’ or accompanied by mercy here on Earth, we are most like God in our ability to be just but also merciful. Shylock has claimed that he wants ‘justice’ – his pound of Antonio’s flesh – but where is the evidence of his mercy?
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
If this ‘course of justice’ – i.e. justice without mercy – is followed, then nobody involved in the verdict deserves to be given God’s salvation, because they are failing to follow his (merciful) example.
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea,
Which, if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ’gainst the merchant there.
Portia reminds Shylock, a Jew, that Christians (‘We’) pray to God for mercy, and through doing so, Christians realise the importance of practising mercy towards others in their own lives. She (as Balthazar) sums up her speech by saying that she has tried to temper Shylock’s requested ‘justice’ (he wants that pound of flesh!) with mercy, but if he insists on justice (without mercy) the ‘strict court’ of the city state of Venice will have to find in Shylock’s favour and condemn Antonio, the merchant of Venice, to give up his pound of flesh in order to fulfil Shylock’s wishes.
Of course, giving up a pound of his flesh would involve Antonio’s almost certain death. Shylock doesn’t care, and Portia’s plea that he show ‘the quality of mercy’ falls on deaf ears. In the end, she manages to defend Antonio from Shylock’s knife by bringing up a legal technicality: although Antonio agreed to pay up a pound of his flesh if he defaulted on his debt, the bond said nothing about his giving Shylock his blood, and Shylock would be unable to remove the merchant’s flesh without drawing blood.
Image: English actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917) as William Shakespeare’s Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Artist: Karl August Büchel, 1914. Via Wikimedia Commons.