‘The Quality of Mercy’

Portia and Shylock. Thomas Sully. 1835.


from The Merchant of Venice

William Shakespeare, 1598



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 scepter 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 sceptered 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. 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 spoken thus much

To mitigate the justice of thy plea,

Which is thou follow, this strict court of Venice

Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.


A Fine Picture—An inscription written on the back of the canvas indicates the relevant lines from The Merchant of Venice: Portia intreats Shylock to “Be merciful./ Take thrice thy money; and bid me tear the bond.” But Shylock, holding the scale in which he intends to weigh a pound of flesh cut from Antonio, scowls at Portia and points at the bond that secures his claim. The dramatic scene is romantically painted; the focus is on the fair Portia, not effectively disguised here as a doctor of law.

A Little Poetry—The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s great tragic-comedy, performed as early as 1596, and first published in 1660. The lovesick Bassanio borrows money from his friend Antonio (the eponymous merchant) in order to impress the lady he loves. Bassanio wins the fair Portia, but Antonio experiences a series of setbacks that leave him in debt to the Jewish moneylender Shylock. According to their contract, Shylock is entitled to a pound of Antonio’s flesh, which he plans to cut from Antonio’s heart. The case goes to the court of Venice. Portia, disguised as a young doctor of law, argues against Shylock’s vicious claim, appealing first to mercy (in this speech) and then to the exactest justice.