Please explain to me Portia's speech on the quality of mercy in act 4 of The Merchant of Venice.

Portia's famous speech extolling the qualities of mercy in act 4, scene 1 of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice is an appeal to Shylock's better qualities to extend mercy to Antonio, the merchant who owes him money, and not take from him the "pound of flesh" that Shylock is due by law.

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In her famous "the quality of mercy is not strained" speech in act 4, scene 1 of William Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, Portia, disguised as a young Doctor of Laws, appeals to Shylock's humanity to forego his legal right to a pound of Antonio's flesh and instead accept a monetary settlement in payment of Antonio's debt to him.

Portia was wasting her breath, of course, and she very likely knew she was, because Shylock is wholly intransigent throughout the trial—he insists on the letter of the law and the "pound of flesh" he's legally owed—and his hatred of Antonio, and indeed of all Christians, overwhelms any mercy he might have felt or shown to Antonio were he not so adamant about receiving the justice he so stridently demands.

As intelligent and resourceful as Portia is throughout the play, it's unlikely that she didn't have the technicality of the law which she later uses against Shylock already in mind when she made her famous speech, but she nevertheless must make the effort to persuade Shylock to amend his bond by appealing to his basic humanity.

PORTIA. Then must the Jew be merciful.

SHYLOCK. On what compulsion must I? tell me that.

PORTIA. The quality of mercy is not strained.
(act 4, scene 1, lines 185–187)

Portia's argument for Shylock to extend mercy to Antonio fails, as she knew it would, and as Shylock holds his knife ready to cut his pound of flesh from Antonio's body, Portia turns the legal tables on him.

PORTIA. Tarry a little;—there is something else.
(act 4, scene 1, line 314)

By law, Shylock is entitled to his pound of Antonio's flesh, but, by law, he's not entitled to even one drop of Antonio's blood. Not only that but, as it turn out, by threatening to take his "pound of flesh" from Antonio, by law Shylock is guilty of attempted murder.

The irony of Portia's "the quality of mercy is not strained" speech is that not one Christian in the court room, not the Duke, Portia, Antonio, or Gratiano, extends any mercy whatsoever to Shylock. To compound their display of inhumanity towards Shylock, Antonio, to whom Portia entreated Shylock to extend mercy and who did not expect to leave the courtroom alive, demands that in addition to the penalties that the Duke levies against Shylock, that Shylock become one of them, a Christian. Mercy "droppeth, as the gentle rain from heaven" (line 188) on everyone else but not on Shylock.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on December 31, 2020
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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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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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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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