The Quality of Mercy

Act 4 Scene 1 – Key Scene

In this scene Antonio and Shylock come face to face in a court room in Venice. Antonio has failed to pay back the money on time, and according to the terms of their agreement, Shylock is now entitled to take a pound of Antonio’s flesh. Portia, in disguise as a male lawyer, encourages Shylock to show ‘mercy’ towards Antonio and let him live.

Take a look at an extract from this scene. Using the following steps, remember to look at it line by line and if you’re looking at the scene for the first time don’t worry if you don’t understand everything at once.

  • Look
    Take a look at the scene. Who has the most lines? Are they using prose or verse? Actors at the RSC often put the language into their own words to help them understand what they are saying. We’ve added some definitions (in green), questions (in red) and paraphrased some sections (in blue) to help with this. You can click on the text that is highlighted for extra guidance.
    On what compulsion must I? Tell me that.

    A compulsion is a demand or force.

    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.
    ’Tis mightiest in the mightiest, it becomes
    The thronèd 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 Godhimself;
    And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
    When mercy seasons justice: therefore, Jew,
    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.

    Mercy is not something that can be created by forcing it through a sieve or sifting it.

    A monarch is a King or a Queen and the head of state.

    Temporal power is earthly or limited power that is not sacred, holy or everlasting.

    Mercy is more important than the everyday rule of kings and belongs in the heart of a ruler.

    Notice how much religious imagery is in Portia’s speech. Why do you think she uses this sort of language?

    Why do you think Portia calls Shylock ‘Jew’ rather than referring to him by name?

    Although you want justice, think about this: if true justice was done on earth, none of us would see heaven. However, we do ask God for mercy for ourselves and that act of prayer teaches us that we should show mercy to others.

    Do you find this speech persuasive? What aspects of it do you think are most powerful and convincing?

    My deeds upon my head! I crave the law,
    The penalty and forfeit of my bond.
  • Listen
    Read the scene aloud. Are there any words or lines that really stand out in Portia's speech?
  • Watch
    Take a look at the actors performing this scene. How does Portia come across in this version, particularly in disguise as 'Balthasar'?
  • Imagine
    Explore some images from past versions of The Merchant of Venice at the RSC. Which sets and staging choices for the scene feel right to you?