This phrase is taken from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It occurs where Portia demands Shylock of being merciful, stating that “The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath” (Act-IV, Scene-I). In this way, she directly makes an appeal to Shylock to leave Antonio’s life saying that as we all pray and plead to God for mercy for being merciful and kind towards us, likewise he should be merciful and kind to him, and he will get reward from the heaven.
Portia insists on convincing him to be merciful as God is too merciful on us. You see that the idea of mercy in the following passage has close connection with the Christian idea of salvation. In fact, she alludes to Christian doctrine that mercy and forgiveness are godly characteristics and seeking justice without showing mercy, Shylock could face damnation, because by doing this he would disobey the law of God.
Generally, we find the use of this quote by someone who means to insult or show offensiveness against someone that seems recalcitrant, stubborn and uninterested in social conventions and humanitarianism. Today this phrase has a little different meaning. In usual context, it is used to refute the claim of people to have acted generously or mercifully by telling them that actually they are short of choices other than to do what they have done. Hence, it is like an insult for those demonstrating mercy.
In Act-IV, Scene-I of The Merchant of Venice, Portia says this to Shylock as;
PORTIA: “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…
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.”
(The Merchant of Venice, Act-IV, Scene-I, Lines 173-195)
She conveys the idea that mercy is a tender and noble feeling, which must spring suddenly from one’s heart. It is as beautiful as gentle showers that flow in the heavens and nourish the earth. It blesses those who show mercy, which not only make them feel good, but also bring heavenly rewards for them.
Mercy is a divine and noble attribute, like when someone imposes harsh justice but then opts for mercy, he displays God like attributes.
On the level of its literary merit, this phrase deserves praise that it comprises of multiplicity of meanings. Its theme not only relates to the theme of tension and conflict but also of godly qualities such as mercy and generosity. However, there are several other character traits associated with it. For example, along with appealing mercy, it indirectly shows numerous qualities of Portia’s character though mercy is not primary among them. A combination of boldness and intelligence come well before mercy. Being a woman, she argues ethics and law in a patriarchal society. The first quality of Portia is her logical and intelligent aspect. She uses references of Christian belief against Shylock, a Jew. Therefore, she expresses her religious belief through all this. She believes that a person can benefit from forgiveness by doing forgiveness.