Concerning the Quality of Mercy

The climactic scene of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice contains one of the most famous speeches in English literature.  Act 4, scene 1, lines 190-212 contain what is commonly referred to as the “Quality of Mercy” speech.  This address provides insight both into the themes of the play and the moral thought process of Shakespeare’s day.

Portia’s initial description of mercy is laced with physical imagery to give life to an abstract concept.  She explains that “It falleth like the gentle rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath” and later as “above [the] sceptered sway” of earthly power (IV, i. 191, 199).  These descriptions illustrate that Portia believes mercy is not an earthly force, but a supernatural one.  Despite its otherworldly origins, mercy nevertheless holds an important place in human interaction since it is “enthroned in the hearts of kings” (IV. i. 200).  The use of the throne metaphor to illustrate both temporal power and mercy is a deliberate psychological maneuver since her speech is given in Court.  To punctuate her account, Portia declares that all mercy shown by people is modeled after God’s own disposition since God Himself is mercy’s originator (IV. i. 200-202).  Appealing to God mirrors the solemn oath traditionally given in Court; Portia is claiming God as her witness.

The second portion of the speech is a warning to the play’s villain Shylock not to separate mercy from the equally powerful concept of justice.  Portia states that “In the course of justice, none of us / Should see salvation” (IV. i. 205-206).  These two lines especially are at the heart of Christian theodicy.  Both the Italian culture explored in the play and Shakespeare’s own Anglican England believed that humankind was stained by Original Sin, the hereditary punishment passed down from Adam and Eve. As grim as it seems, Christian doctrine teaches that humanity deserves hell simply for existing.  Humanity’s reason for hope is its assurance that God is merciful before He is just, hence “mercy seasons justice” (IV. i. 203).  Portia’s solution to the threat of unchecked justice is to pray for God’s mercy and consciously model it in human actions (IV. i. 208).  Again, this statement is consistent with the traditional Christian lifestyle which encourages members to treat each other kindly as per the Golden Rule in the Gospel.

Portia closes her speech by bring attention back to the play’s events.  She has addressed her words chiefly to Shylock who demands justice in the form of his bond with Antonio.  Should Shylock’s “justice” be carried out, Antonio would lose a pound of flesh from his chest.  Portia has a plan in place to spare Antonio’s life and defeat Shylock.  Her speech is her final warning for Shylock to recant his demands and spare himself the humiliation she is about to inflict on him.  Interestingly, this situation is merciful in and of itself; Portia shows clemency simply by giving her speech to Shylock before defeating him.  Because he refuses both to accept her advice and act mercifully himself, justice is swiftly dealt and his life is ruined.

The “Quality of Mercy” speech is multifaceted in its effectiveness.  It is neither too long nor too short and therefore does not come across as trite or overly preachy.  It is significant to the play, educational to its audience, and relevant even out of context.  Understandably, the speech has since become an iconic passage in English literature and education.

~Mich Walter

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