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. 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 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.
What has just happened? (What is the moment before the monologue.)
The 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.
Here’s how I’d mark up the text to begin with:
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.
Full stops, or lack thereof!
There are only four full stops in most published versions of this speech, and each sentence sets out a new idea.
- First 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; that is blesses both the giver and receiver. That is the most powerful attribute of Kings; more than his sceptre. That mercy is an action, close to Gods own likeness.
- Thirdly she speaks directly to Shylock; stating that while he seeks Justice, that is not the road to salvation. Only mercy can save our souls.
- And finally, she concludes her speech saying that if Shylock still wants justice, the court will be forced to enact its penalty on Antonio.
Here’s Portia’s monologue translated into modern English – this helps me to understand the imagery and the meaning behind some of her words, and understand the arc throughout this monologue.
Mercy cannot be forced,
It falls as easily as rain does from heaven
Down to the Earth/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 is 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.
Here’s a little dictionary for the monologue – there are a few words that you might not be familiar with. I encourage you to look into any words or phrases you don’t understand – you need to know what you’re saying in every single line!
Strained: Forced, given by compulsion
The Place Beneath: The ground or Earth
Becomes: Suits, enhances
Sceptre: A staff carried by Kings or Queens during ceremonies, often seen in portraits
Temporal: Earthly, of this life, not spiritual
Sceptred Sway: Power/domination
Enthroned: Installed on a throne
Seasons: Tempers, soften
Salvation: Redemption from God
Render the deeds of mercy: Exhibit the act of mercy
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 and one that treated Jewish people appallingly. Jewish people were in fact, exiled from England at the time Merchant of Venice was written. There is underlying tension between these characters. Note Portia calls Shylock ‘Jew’ in the speech, though throughout the scene she switches between calling him ‘Shylock’ and ‘Jew’. Why does she do this? Note the use of Christian images; God, pray, blesseth, heaven, blessed, salvation, prayer.
The punctuation is also a useful guide when approaching Portia’s speech. Following the punctation will help you find the pace and rhythm of the speech. There are clear builds in Portia’s argument and the punctuation can provide clues to how she might be feeling.