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What does Portia's speech "The quality of mercy is not strain'd..." reveal...

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worcester | College Teacher | Honors

Posted October 10, 2008 at 8:55 AM via web

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What does Portia's speech "The quality of mercy is not strain'd..." reveal about her character in "The Merchant of Venice"?

e.g. does it show that she's a very merciful person (because she later goes on to try and show utmost justice to Shylock), what does it say about her? and what thematic concern would this particular speech be lodged under?

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gbeatty | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 10, 2008 at 9:43 AM (Answer #1)

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Portia's entire wonderful speech in Act IV goes as follows:

"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." It shows several things about Portia's character. Mercy, however, is not primary among them. A blend of intelligence and boldness come well before mercy. She's a woman arguing law and ethics in a male-dominated society. After that, the next quality is found in the metaphor: it recognizes that mercy, like rain, falls unevenly, and (to extend the metaphor) sometimes fails to soak in. This means, she knows it will not be "absorbed" by Shylock as it should.

As far as themes, this relates to both the theme of mercy and the tension between appearance and reality.

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ms-mcgregor | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 10, 2008 at 10:00 AM (Answer #2)

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Portia shows several characteristics in this speech. The first is that she is intelligent and logical. She also uses strong references to the Christian faith against Shylock, the Jew. Thus, she shows a strong religious belief. Her argument begins with the idea that forgiveness benefits the person doing the forgiving as well as the person forgiven. In an obvious allusion to Christianity, she says that forgiveness and mercy are a part of the character of God and that by seeking justice without mercy Shylock may well damn himself because he will disobey God's law. She is also self-confident. She shows give no apology for her beliefs and in fact implies that hers is the superior faith. This speech contributes to the theme that in showing mercy, one becomes closest to God. In the "love we show towards our friends, the compassion we show those in trouble, and the forgiveness we offer" to those who "sin against us", we show that we love and obey God.


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