Please explain to me Portia's speech on the quality of mercy in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice.

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coachingcorner's profile pic

coachingcorner | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

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In the play The Merchant Of Venice by William Shakespeare, the author examines the themes of justice, mercy and forgiveness. Shylock is looking for an excuse to be vindictive, to exact revenge, to punish, to hurt and to be spiteful and vengeful. In some ways, Portia is wasting her breath trying to show him what mercy should be like - he is glad of the opportunity to get his own back and therfore mercy has use for him. Portia also tries to explain that mercy is gentle and no respecter of class or staus - it should "fall" on,or be available to, all. It is enobling for the giver to be capable of offering mercy - but Shylock does not want to be noble,he just wants to be avenged.

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pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The speech that has these words in it is spoken by Portia in Act IV, Scene 1 of this play.  In it, she is lecturing Shylock about mercy.

What she is telling Shylock is that mercy is not something that can be forced (strained).  Instead, it has to be given freely.  She says that when you act mercifully, you help yourself and you help the person that you are showing mercy to.  She tells Shylock that what he should strive for is not justice, but rather mercy.

By saying these things, she is asking him not to try to get his "pound of flesh" from Antonio.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In her speech to Shylock, Portia, disguised as the learned young lawyer Balthasar who is sent in lieu of an ailing Doctor Bellario, tries to caution the usurer against his thirst for revenge against Antonio. She argues for the Christian virtue of mercy.

Because the duke cannot be an impartial judge, he has written Doctor Bellario and in his stead, Balthasar appears (Portia in disguise). She addresses Shylock, hoping to sway him to not let his hatred for Antonio blind himself to the possible consequences of his revenge. But, Shylock knows that he has the law on his side, so he insists on Antonio's honoring the contract that they made. In her address to Shylock, then, Portia tries to appeal to his sense of right and to his heart.

In her speech Portia tells Shylock that mercy is something that is not shown because it is necessary (strained); rather, a person extends mercy to another out of the generosity of his heart. She argues further that showing mercy does benefit the giver: 

                                              It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown. (4.1.176-177)
That is, the king who extends mercy shows his greatness, for he demonstrates a quality of God himself. Portia adds that it is mercy that humans need most from God, suggesting that the merciful person helps both the one to whom he extends mercy as well as helping himself since God will see what he has so generously done and reward him.
It is this last point that Portia makes which focuses upon the blind cruelty and dangerous hatred of Shylock as he continues to insist on his pound of flesh. For, by mentioning the fact that everyone needs mercy from God, Portia hints to Shylock that he may receive punishment for his cruelty. Here Portia suggests the Christian verse from Proverbs that states that when pride comes first, dishonor follows. And, this dishonor is precisely what happens to Shylock because he insists upon his pound of flesh from Antonio.




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