Portia is one of the most famous and beloved female characters in Shakespeare’s canon and her “Mercy Speech” is an excellent monologue for an actor’s repertoire. Portia is intelligent, charming and isn’t afraid to take her destiny into her own hands.
Updated 17th January, 2022.
We meet Portia after her father’s death, anxious about who she will have to marry. She loves Bassanio but her father left the decision to a bizarre guessing game involving three chests and a riddle. When Bassanio solves it, Portia is elated. But as they are celebrating, news comes that Bassanio’s friend, Antonio is in trouble. Antonio secured a loan from the merchant Shylock for Bassanio and, now unable to pay, Antonio will have to give Shylock a pound of his flash. Bassanio leaves for Venice to help his friend and Portia decides follow Bassanio in disguise as a man.
This monologue takes place in a Courtroom in Venice. Portia has just entered dressed as Balthazar, a young lawyer, sent to adjudicate the case. She acknowledges that the contract is binding and that the only solution is that Shylock must show mercy to Antonio. When Shylock asks ‘On what compulsion must I? tell me that.’ her response is this famous speech.
Let’s start by looking at the original text. Pay attention to spaces and punctuation to help you demark the various ideas, thought and beats throughout.
Space = New beat/idea
, or ; = build on a thought
The quality of mercy is not strained;
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:
‘T is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown:
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.
Though justice be thy plea, consider this;
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
I have spoke thus much
To mitigate the justice of thy plea;
Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice
Must needs give sentence ‘gainst the merchant there.
Here’s a little dictionary/glossary for the monologue: there are a few words and phrases that you might not be familiar with. Understanding the language should always be your first step, as it’s vital that you know what you’re saying in every single line—especially for a character so articulate and witty as Portia!
Strained: Forced, given by compulsion.
The Place Beneath: The ground, or Earth, below the heavens.
Becomes: Suits, enhances.
Sceptre: A staff carried by Kings or Queens during ceremonies; a sceptre is a symbol of power, law-making or dominion.
Temporal: Earthly, of this life, not spiritual.
Sceptred Sway: Power/domination.
Enthroned: Installed on a throne.
Seasons: Tempers, softens.
Salvation: Redemption from God.
Render the deeds of mercy: Exhibit the act of mercy.
Mitigate: Lessen, manage.
Here’s Portia’s monologue translated into modern English. This can be helpful to understand the imagery and the words, but more importantly the ideas that carry this monologue through its dramatic arc.
Mercy cannot be forced,
It falls as easily as rain does from heaven
Down to the Earth.
Mercy is twice blessed,
It blesses the one who gives it and the ones who receives it,
It is the most powerful when given by the most powerful people,
It looks better on a king than his crown does,
His sceptre is the symbol of his mortal power;
his awe and majesty; these qualities that makes people fear a king,
but mercy is more powerful that the sceptres power,
because it lives in the heart of a king,
it is a quality of God,
And therefore kings are the closest to God,
when he lets mercy temper justice.
Therefore Jew, though you want Justice, think about this,
In the pursuit of Justice, we will not find salvation,
We all pray for mercy,
And that should teach us all to show mercy.
I have spoken to lessen you your plea for justice,
which if you choose to follow,
will force the sentence against the Merchant there.
Notes On Performance
Some close script analysis of the text reveals something about Shakespeare’s use of punctuation. There are only four full stops in most published versions of this speech, and each sentence sets out a new idea:
- First up, Portia lays out her response to Shylock; suggesting that mercy is not forced, that it comes and falls as gently as rain.
- Secondly, she describes the power of mercy, and how it blesses both the giver and receiver. It is the most powerful attribute of Kings; more than his sceptre that makes laws and symbolises dominance. Mercy is an action close to God’s own benevolent likeness.
- Thirdly, she speaks directly to Shylock; stating that while he seeks justice, it is not the road to salvation. Only mercy can save one’s soul.
- And finally, she concludes her speech saying that if Shylock still wants justice, the court will be forced to enact its penalty on Antonio.
Understanding each of these points, and playing them within the overall arc of the monologue, lends the piece a terrific rising tension. Portia knows this—she is skilled in the ways of creating a convincing argument—and so it is your job to find this command of language and persuasiveness in her words.
Portia’s monologue is a powerful and beautiful argument for mercy over justice. While she is trying to persuade Shylock, the contrast of the religious images and the fact she is talking to a Jewish man creates an interesting tension. The play was written in a very Christian society—one that treated Jewish people appallingly. In fact, Jewish people were actually exiled from England at the time The Merchant of Venice was written. Identify and explore the underlying tension of these characters in regard to race and religion. Note the use of Christian language and imagery: “God”, “pray”, “blesseth”, “heaven”, “blessed”, “salvation”, “prayer”.
Finally, don’t forget that Portia, posing as lawyer Balthazar, needs to be convincing. Therefore, spend ample time plotting out your objectives in this speech, as well as your actions that will carry you there. Note the way that she appeals to Shylock’s sense of compassion and mercy, humanising a character that is otherwise perceived as a villain and lesser citizen of Venice.