This phrase is taken from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. It occurs where Portia demands Shylock be 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, Portia directly makes an appeal to Shylock to leave Antonio’s life, saying that, as we all pray and plead to God for mercy, to be merciful and kind towards us, likewise Shylock should be merciful and kind to him, and he will get a reward from heaven.
Portia insists on convincing him to be merciful as God is merciful toward us. You see that the idea of mercy in the passage has a 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 its usual context, it is used to refute the claim of people that they have acted generously or mercifully, by telling them that they were short of choices, their only option 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 makes them feel good, but also brings heavenly rewards.
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, as it has a 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. Portia’s best qualities are her logic and intelligence. 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 forgiving others.
- Allusion: Allusion to Christian idea of salvation
- Irony: This phrase has irony of situation, because it is used where there is often no mercy.
- Metaphor: Here, mercy is shown as endless rain.