W William Shakespeare

The quality of mercy is not strained by William Shakespeare

“The quality of mercy is not strained” is one of the greatest monologues written by William Shakespeare. Portia delivers this monologue to Shylock in Act IV, Scene I of “The Merchant of Venice.”

“The quality of mercy is not strained” is said to be one of the greatest quotes from William Shakespeare’s works collectively. This monologue appears in the 16th-century play by Shakespeare, “The Merchant of Venice.” In the play, a Jewish moneylender, Shylock provides a large loan to Antonio who was unable to pay off the debt. To defend Antonio’s concern, Portia comes into play. In the famous trial scene of the drama, she makes this speech begging Shylock for mercy. Later it became one of the powerful speeches of the play along with Shylocks’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech on humanity.

The quality of mercy is not strained by William Shakespeare

 

Context

In “The Merchant of Venice,” the central character Portia makes this speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained.” It occurs in Act 4, Scene 1. The plot is set in a Venetian Court of Justice.

As the context reveals, Antonio, a bosom friend of Bassanio and the suitor to Portia, takes a large amount of loan from Shylock, a miserly jew and moneylender, on behalf of his friend, Antonio. Later, he was unable to pay off the debt as he lost his ships in the sea.

Shylock files a case against Antonio as he tries to default the loan. In the climax of the play that is set in the court of the Duke of Venice, he demands his “pound of flesh” in return. While taking the loan, Antonio assured him that if he was unable to pay back he would give him his “pound of flesh.”

In the trial of Antonio, Portia enters the scene disguised as a male lawyer. She pleads for mercy to save Antonio’s life. During the conversation with Shylocks, she delivers this oft-quoted passage mentioned below.

 

Full Quote

Portia speaks in Act 4, Scene 1 of Shakespearean comedy, “The Merchant of Venice.”

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:

‘T is 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 enthronèd 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. Therefore, Jew,

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

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.

 

Summary

“The quality of mercy is not strained” by William Shakespeare describes how mercy, an attribute to God himself, can save a person’s soul and elevate him to the degree of God.

In this speech, Portia begs Shylock for showing mercy on Antonio by understanding his situation. Being a guarantor of the loan, he is liable to return the loan amount but due to unforeseen events, he can’t pay it off. She doesn’t want to change the law but she seeks to change Shylock’s mind. So, pleading for mercy, she describes the power of mercy that is above the power of might.

Only mercy can save Antonio’s life, nothing else. To make her point clear, Portia uses several metaphors to convince Shylock. According to her, mercy is like the rain that falls naturally. Mercy is a humane thing. It does not come forcefully. The quality of mercy blesses one who shows it and one who receives it.

Mercy is more powerful than the sway of the scepter or the gravity of the crown. It places a king not only in the hearts of other kings but also in his people’s hearts. By showing mercy, one can become like God as it is an attribute to Him. In this way, Portia requests Shylock to have mercy on Antonio as it can only save the defaulter’s life.

 

Meaning

This monologue deals with how the quality of mercy can help a person to reach the level of God. It is not a forceful quality that one has to show out of some personal gain. Rather, it is a humane thing that a person has to show to others. Being merciful to others is like the rain that falls on the ground. No matter how powerful the person becomes, he cannot control the course of rain. Mercy is such a quality.

In the speech, the speaker presents a contrast between earthly power and the divine one by referring to the crown and scepter of a kind. According to her, a king can become more powerful than other kings who try to control their subjects with physical power. Mercy is a power that wins the soul and makes it obey the person who showers mercy. In this way, a person becomes close to God.

The last few lines of the speech deal with the plot. The speaker, Portia says if Shylock shows mercy he can become like the almighty. If he refuses to do so, none can change the harsh course of justice. Only he can, not even the duke who was overseeing the case.

 

Structure

The overall speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained” being a part of the play, “The Merchant of Venice,” lacks the poetical elements. There is not a specific rhyme scheme. Only in a few instances, readers can see slant rhymes or internal rhymings.

The monologue consists of 22 lines and has several dramatic elements. Shakespeare employs caesura to create tension between the lines. Apart from that, the flow of the text does not break due to the interconnection between the lines. The persuasion follows the scheme of climax and presents the most important idea (saving Antonio’s life) at the end.

The metrical analysis of the text reveals that each line consists of more or less ten syllables. While reading, the stress falls on each foot’s second syllable, a unit of two syllables. So, a line has five iambs, thus the overall speech is in iambic pentameter. There are a few metrical variations as well.

 

Literary Devices

The monologue of Portia is an act of persuasion. Through this speech, she tries to convince Shylock to show mercy on her client, Antonio. Therefore, it is packed with several literary devices that are needed for persuading Shylock.

For example, the speech begins with litotes. So, the first line, “The quality of mercy is not strained” is an ironic understatement in which the negative sense expresses an affirmative idea.

The second line contains a simile and the comparison is made between the “gentle rain” to mercy. Shakespeare uses an epigram in the line, “It is the mightiest in the mightiest.” He also uses metonymy by using the word, “sceptre”. It is a symbol of worldly power.

There is an alliteration in the phrase, “sceptred sway.” It also contains a metaphor.

Throughout this piece, readers can find the use of enjambment that internally connects the lines. This device also maintains the flow of the speech.

 

Detailed Analysis

Lines 1–4

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:

Through the analysis of the monologue “The quality of mercy is not strained,” it will be clear why it is called one of the great speeches in Shakespeare. In his comedy, “The Merchant of Venice” Portia delivers the speech during the famous trial scene (Act 4, Scene 1). This scene is considered one of the complex plots of the play. Therefore understanding the meaning of the speech helps readers to discover the mindset of Portia as well as Shylock.

The first line by which the speech is known begins with a negative understatement. Portia says mercy is a human quality that is not strained. Readers can understand that here the speaker uses irony to present the idea. According to her, mercy is not artful or forced. It is a spontaneous quality that remains dormant in the soul. A person has to discover this aspect of his soul. Then the process of showing mercy becomes natural.

How does it feel while being merciful to another? Portia delivers the answer in the following two lines. Using an explicit comparison between mercy and rain, she throws light on the feeling beautifully. She says it feels like the rain from heaven. Here, “heaven” is a reference to the sky. A person who receives mercy from the other is like the ground on which the rain falls. Raining is a natural phenomenon. None can force the clouds to rain. Likewise, a person cannot forcefully show mercy. He has to realize its importance to incorporate this quality.

So, why is mercy important concerning all other qualities? The speaker also answers the following lines. Mercy, being an attribute to God, blesses both the giver and receiver. The person who gives mercy seems to be meek at heart but he has a courageous mind. On the other hand, a person who gets mercy is saved from suffering (mental or physical).

 

Lines 5–9

‘T is 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;

As Portia has to convince Shylock to show mercy on Antonio, she has to highlight the facts that reveal the greatness of this quality. Therefore, she excludes all other qualities. According to her, mercy is the mightiest quality of all. Not only that, only the mightiest person has this quality in his heart. Readers can understand there is an implicit reference to God. The speaker exalts the person who shows mercy to others.

In the following lines, there is a personification. Shakespeare personifies mercy to a throned monarch. Mercy is like a monarch who is better than his crown. What does this mean? The crown is a symbol of royalty and power. But, the speaker does not talk here about the royalties related to kingship. According to her, mercy makes a person the ruler or monarch of his mind. He does not enjoy monarchy in a particular country. Rather he becomes the sole controller of his soul. The quality of mercy has such powers.

There is a contrast between the idea of kingship from a worldly and spiritual perspective in the following lines. A king’s scepter is a symbol of temporal power. The scepter can be permanent but the person who holds it is not. Besides, it is also a symbol of majesty. It inspires awe in the subjects’ minds. At the same time, this same thing inspires fear in the hearts of kings. A king is always aware of the fact that someone can replace him at any time. In this way, the speaker describes the futility of worldly power.

 

Lines 10–14

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthronèd 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. Therefore, Jew,

In these lines of the “The quality of mercy is not strained” quote, the writer presents a contrasting idea. The previous lines explore the transience of worldly power. Here, the speaker makes it clear that mercy is above the “sceptred sway.” This phrase contains a metaphor for the royal power.

According to her, a merciful soul is more powerful than a king. When this quality is incorporated into the hearts of kings, they become close to God. Mercy is an attribute of God himself. If readers don’t take the word “king” by its literal meaning, they can understand the objectivity of the line. A person who has mastery over his mind can be called a king of his mind. If he has mercy in his heart, he seems to be a mortal god.

In the following lines, the speaker presents another important concept of justice. According to her, a person seems to be like God if the mercy in his heart seasons justice. It means that justice should rise from the foundation of mercy. Being merciful to others helps one to understand the humane aspect of justice. Then taking a person’s life for the sake of justice seems unrealistic without compassionately understanding the victim’s situation. Here, the victim is Antonio whose life Portia wants to save.

 

Lines 15–17

Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

That, in the course of justice, none of us

Should see salvation:

In the previous line, Portia remarks how the act of justice has a merciful aspect. The following lines of the speech, “The quality of mercy is not strained” make it clear why she says so. She tells Shylock (the Jew) to consider what she says further though he is only demanding justice from the Venetian court. In the course of justice, none can see salvation. As the case appears Antonio is guilty. But, demanding justice only cannot save his innocent soul.

Readers are aware of the fact that Antonio is not mischievously defaulting the loan. He is just another victim of unforeseen situations. Therefore, his soul will suffer this mortal damnation if the court of justice only considers the contract. That’s why Portio implores Shylock to be humane enough to understand the concern of his defaulter.

Now, what does salvation mean? In theology, the deliverance from sin and its consequences is called salvation. Christians believe pure faith in Christ brings about salvation. In other words, this concept means the preservation or deliverance from harm and loss. This simple word brings in both the literal sense as well as the Christian deliverance. In this way, Portia tries to touch Christian sentiment to win the case against Shylock who is a Jew.

 

Lines 17–22

… we do pray for mercy;

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.

Those who are present in the court scene plead Shylock’s mercy. This prayer also refers to the fact that not only Christians but all human beings have to encourage the deeds of mercy. Thus they can create a sympathetic society in which everyone is always ready to understand the pangs of others.

Portia has spoken much about mercy to mitigate the justice of Shylock’s plea. It means she has given her best to alleviate the gravity of the case against Antonio. If Shylock remains unmerciful, the court of Venice has to give a sentence against the merchant, Antonio.

In this way, Portia clarifies how the process of justice should work. Only relying on a case from a particular perspective does not proper justice. Justice flourishes when the judge is as merciful as God. Thus, without incorporating this God-like quality, a person cannot do proper justice to another.

 

Similar Quotes

Here is a list of a few speeches from William Shakespeare that are considered the greatest of all times like Portia’s monologue, “The quality of mercy is not strained”.

You can also read about the best-known love sonnets of Shakespeare and Shakespeare’s greatest poetry.

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Sudip Das Gupta
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A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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