The Merchant of Venice: "The quality of mercy is not strain'd...."

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The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

The opening line strays from iambic rhythm, reflecting the emphasis on "mercy" and "not strain'd" in the latter half of the line. Strain'd (from Middle English via Anglo-French deriving from the Latin stringere "to bind or draw tight") in this context means "forced or constrained," especially given the comparison to rain in the following line. Also note that "strain'd" is written with the apostrophe to signify that "ed" should not be pronounced as a second syllable (versus other lines the use the "éd" ending to signify that it should).

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It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Here the rhythm plunges back into iambic regularity, the only variance being its feminine ending (the extra unstressed syllable at the end of the line). Note how the simile works with Portia's opening line to illustrate her view of mercy. One could argue that gentle, while obviously denoting "light or soft," makes for a subtle double entendre with the connotation of "noble" (which was much more of an associated meaning in Shakespeare's age than today) due to the tenor of the speech.

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Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

This line uses a trochaic inversion to accomplish two things at once. First, it reinforces the caesura (marked by the semicolon) by flanking it with hard stresses. Second, the construction lets Shakespeare set up the terminal spondee, reinforcing the most important words of the line, "twice blest." Upon the place beneath is a poetic way of saying "the ground" in context.

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It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

In this line of straight iambic pentameter, Portia elaborates on the "twice blest" of the previous line by using anaphora, or repeating words at the beginning of successive phrases, to illustrate that mercy blesses not only the recipient but the person who gives it as well.

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'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

Here we have that rare case of Shakespeare using an alexandrine, or six feet of pentameter rather than the normal five of blank verse. It's debatable whether or not Shakespeare intended it, because neither he nor any of his contemporaries ever really found much use for alexandrines in their work. Usually the caesura (look for the colon) would indicate that it was on purpose, but in those cases, generally the pause breaks the line in the middle, not right before the end. However, he may have needed it to accommodate the word mightiest in the line (which is another rhetorical effect known as epanalepsis, in which a phrase begins and ends with the same word). Such is the occasional dilemma of writing metrical poetry. Becomes denotes "fitting or suitable" in this usage.

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The thronÚd monarch better than his crown;

This line builds upon the theme that Portia has set in motion; after all, who is mightier in the temporal world than the monarch? And, if indeed mercy is "mightiest in the mightiest" as she says, then it follows that mercy should be most abundant in those with the most power to grant it. At the same time, it makes the somewhat daring implication (for those "divine right of kings" days, at least), that it may not be the crown that makes the king.

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His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

Here's another arguable alexandrine; if you scan "temporal" as two syllables (TEMP-rul) rather than three, the line easily becomes pentameter with a feminine ending, which is probably closer to what Shakespeare intended given the usual contempt for 12-syllable lines in English poetry. Sceptre is a rod or small staff that is one of the three primary symbols of English royalty (the crown, the sceptre, and the orb being the regal trinity). Force in this context means "validity or legality" (given the presence of the word "power" in the same line). Temporal means "pertaining to this life or this world, not spiritual, not eternal; earthly" in this context (deriving from Anglo-French via the Latin temporalis, "of time").

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The attribute to awe and majesty,

Other than the ending foot being a pyrrhic, there's nothing rhythmically noteworthy about the line. Attribute denotes "an object of close association; a symbol" and refers to the sceptre mentioned above. Portia is basically setting up a juxtaposition of those qualities of power that alternately inspire dread and reverence, a theme most famously explored by Machiavelli, who posited the question "whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved?" Since this isn't the Machiavelli Resource Center, however, you can learn more about Machiavelli's thoughts on the matter by reading The Prince, Chapter XVII.

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Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

Because this is the termination of a two-line dependent clause, this is one of those stretches in which the casual reader of Shakespeare can occasionally get confused. The line qualifies "awe and majesty" of the previous line; the two lines together describe the symbolism of the sceptre.

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But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

And now, Portia shifts from the earthly to the ethereal. Just as God reigns above the king in the natural order, mercy is a more ennobling quality than the austerity of power represented by the sceptre. Sway means "rule or dominion."

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It is enthronÚd in the hearts of kings,

It's a matter of interpretation whether or not to inflect the "is" to make the first foot an iamb instead of a pyrrhic. However, the presence of all those short "i" vowel sounds versus the long "o" of "enthronéd" tends to make the spoken line sound that way no matter how you scan it. Note the choice of the word enthronéd, by the way, to reinforce the regality of mercy in a ruler.

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It is an attribute to God himself;

Rhythmically, this line mirrors its predecessor, and, like the preceding line, the pyrrhic helps deliver emphasis to attribute. Portia's speech again employs a bit of anaphora to help the phrasing and rhythm set up for the next two lines. Effectively, Portia is reminding Shylock that even God, who wields the infinite capacity for revenge, is defined by His mercy.

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And earthly power doth then show likest God's

This line employs a masculine ending (an extra stressed syllable at the end of the line) as a variant, bringing more emphasis to the name of God at the end of the line. In her usage of likest, Portia is saying that earthly power is showing most like God's (as opposed to merely being similar). It's an interesting double comparison between mercy and justice, God and king.

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When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,

From this point on, note how Portia keeps hammering at the words "justice" and "mercy" to make her point. Seasons (from the Middle English sesounen, deriving from the Anglo-French seisoné, meaning "brought to a desired state") is used in its archaic sense "to temper; to soften." Here's an interesting bit of trivia, by the way, since Portia is invoking God in this speech. The word "mercy" has 276 occurrences in the King James Bible, according to concordances; the word "justice" occurs 28 times. Ironically, the two have only one line in common: Psalm 89, verse 14 ("Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face"). And now, back to our regularly scheduled analysis....

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Though justice be thy plea, consider this,

Iambic pentameter doesn't get much more straightforward than this. This line makes the turning point in Portia's speech (begun in the line above by ""Therefore, Jew"). Up until now, she has been waxing philosophical on the topic of mercy. One might imagine Portia's delivery of the first 14 lines playing to the general audience within the court. Now she directly addresses Shylock in more practical and calculated terms regarding justice.

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That, in the course of justice, none of us

The last foot scans best as a pyrrhic to place the proper emphasis on "none". Again, Portia is repeating the word "justice"—three times in successive lines—with much the same conscious effect that Marc Antony uses the word "honorable" in his funeral oration of Julius Caesar. In both cases, the speakers mean for their respective audiences to ponder the word and how it applies to the situation at hand. In Portia's oratory, she is attempting to get Shylock to be less rigid in his demand for justice. Ironically, she gives him the proverbial rope with which to hang himself in this speech, because Shylock's eventual fate hinges on the strictest possible interpretation of the law.

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Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;

Rhythmically, the line is basic iambic pentameter with the now familiar feminine ending. Salvation (from Middle English salvacion via Anglo-French from Latin salvation, which derives from salvare, literally "to save") and pray are chosen carefully to bring home the following point: even the ultimate judge doesn't apply unadulterated justice. Portia is saying that's what we're counting on when we pray for God's mercy.

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And that same prayer doth teach us all to render

Note how the pyrrhic/spondee combination at the beginning of the line helps emphasize the phrase "same prayer." This is a bit of foreshadowing that builds on the Duke's question to Shylock earlier in the scene, ""How shalt thou hope for mercy, rendering none?" In turn, the whole theme of the scene takes its cue from the Sermon on the Mount; to quote the King James Bible, Matthew 5:7, "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." There are a number of New Testament quotations that echo the sentiment—James 2:13, "For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment," comes to mind—and it is no accident that New Testament scripture forms the basis of Portia's rhetoric, aimed as it is at Shylock, a Jew. Render (from the Middle English rendren via Anglo-French deriving from the Latin reddere, meaning "to give back") means "to offer or grant."

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The deeds of mercy. I have spoke thus much

It's a matter of preference in this line whether the third foot, split by the period, scans as an iamb or a pyrrhic. Whether one views it as a restatement of the Golden Rule, or karma, or whatever creed one pleases, Portia is essentially saying that as we pray for mercy for ourselves, so should we practice mercy upon others. Again, this can be seen as foreshadowing once one knows how the scene will end.

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To mitigate the justice of thy plea;

Portia ends her speech by putting her motive out in the open (a sound rhetorical strategy for persuasive oratory, given that one of the primary aims of rhetoric is to cultivate credibility) and by returning to that familiar refrain of justice. Mitigate, meaning "to make less severe," comes to us from Middle English mitigaten via the Latin mitigare (pp mitigatus), meaning "to soften." It reinforces the symbiosis between justice and mercy.

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Which if thou follow, this strict court of Venice

The pyrrhic/spondee scansion gives the proper dual emphasis on "strict court"; the feminine ending is probably due to the necessity of ending the line with "Venice" more than anything else. Portia is also deflecting any responsibility for Antonio's well-being from the court—after all, the court can only make their judgment based upon the law and the will of the plaintiff—and placing it squarely upon Shylock.

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Must needs give sentence 'gainst the merchant there.

Portia extends an olive branch; Shylock will have none of it, and so wreaks his own downfall out of stubborn pride. Is it justified? Shylock could have relented on numerous occasions during the scene. His refusal combined with a to-the-letter interpretation of his bond is what destroys him. It seems that Portia and the court is willing to meet even the vestige of mercy in kind. Yet, is humiliation a mercy? It is an ending easier to understand than it is to condone.

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