“The Quality of Mercy”

The Merchant of Venice features one of Shakespeare’s most profound meditations on humanity’s potential for goodness. In her famous monologue from Act 4, Scene 1, young heroine Portia declares, “The quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.” (Read and listen here.)

As with virtually all of Shakespeare’s words, the power of Portia’s speech exceeds the play from which it derives – capturing not only the ethical, but the spiritual impetus that must guide us in our actions. For as Portia remarks, mercy is “twice blest: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” We are reminded of merciful acts both grand – indeed, Portia is disguised as a lawyer here in an effort to save her husband’s friend – and more modest. With this in mind, when discussing the monologue with young performers, it can be helpful to relate this monologue to the everyday kindnesses that many of us take for granted: volunteering at an animal shelter or a soup kitchen; caring for a friend or family member in need.

Such real-life moments reveal the eternal truth in what Shakespeare observed hundreds of years ago: The quality of mercy is not elusive or exclusive; it resides in all of us, as naturally free-flowing as that gentle rain of which Portia speaks.