Sunday, 9 June 2013

Clever Portia and The Quality of Mercy

Portia might seem only interested in getting
hitched, but she shows a much
smarter side in the courtroom scene
The Merchant of Venice contains a number of Shakespeare's best known speeches, including Portia's famous oratory on the ‘quality of mercy’.

Until this point in the play, Portia has appeared to be little more than a wealthy heiress courted by undesirable suitors. However, the “quality of mercy” speech and the courtroom scene as a whole, offers a view of a much more complex and intelligent character.

Why is it Portia Who Delivers the Speech?

Shakespeare could have used any number of characters to deliver this speech, including the Duke, so why does it fall to Portia, who has, until this juncture, had nothing to do with the ‘Shylock’ strand of the plot?

Perhaps the most fundamental (and uninteresting) reason is this is how Shakespeare’s source material told the story.

However, there are dramatic reasons, too. For example, if one of the Christian merchants had spoken the speech, it would have reduced Shylock’s validity as a worthy antagonist. His great weapon against the Christians is his power with words. Subsequently, although Shylock has only 360 lines in the play, they are undoubtedly some of the best.

And then there’s the duke. But if the Duke had delivered the speech, the play would have been resolved by a deux et machina, which is a valid theatrical device (used by Shakespeare on numerous occasions). However, it wouldn’t build dramatic tension throughout the scene, because an audience would know exactly how the play is going to be resolved. With Portia, things look a little more dicey.

Of course, the use of Portia also allows for cross-dressing, which is a firm favourite with Shakespeare, and the possibility for comedy, because, at the beginning of the scene, an audience is likely to think that Portia’s attempt to be a doctor of law (the term lawyer was not used at the time) will be a complete cock-up.

The Quality of Mercy is not Strain’d

The quality of mercy speech is one of Shakespeare's
 most famous
So, we've looked at why Portia gives the speech. Now, let's take a look at the speech itself. What is she trying to do with it?

'The quality of mercy', like several of Shakespeare’s speeches, including 'To be or not to be' and 'Now is the winter of our discontent', is very well known, but most people could not quote beyond the first line or two.

The speech demonstrates Portia’s intelligence and boldness, but it perhaps also smacks of naiveté. Her seemingly innocent view of the world is, of course, another reason for using Portia to deliver the speech; the men of the play speak of commerce, spurning their enemies and revenge (all very unmerciful concepts).

Portia begins by using the metaphor of ‘gentle rain’ to describe mercy, and points out that mercy benefits the merciful and those who receive mercy, “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

It is important to bear in mind that Portia already knows the Venetian law cannot prevent Shylock from taking the pound of flesh, so she has to make the concept of mercy as appealing as possible. She does this by describing it as a most becoming quality in the powerful, “Tis mightiest in the mightiest…”

The religious section of the speech is interesting, because Shylock’s response to this can, and is often, played in two different ways. On one hand, as a religious man, Shylock could recognise the human quest for salvation and mercy. Therefore he may be affected by the speech and waver a little in his pursuit of justice. 

It might not have had the effect she
wanted, but the quality of mercy speech
gives us an insight into Portia's character
Alternatively, as the Jewish faith places a high value on justice, Shylock could be entirely unaffected by Portia’s words. Shylock’s reaction is, of course, down to the choices of actors and directors.

Either way, like an Elizabethan Perry Mason, Portia delivers a very clever piece of courtroom oratory, which transcends the question of the legality of the bond and looks at a higher state of right and wrong.

By the time Portia reaches her closing, “I have said thus much/To mitigate the justice of thy plea…” incredibly, she has managed to deliver a persuasive argument for the immorality of justice. 

It might not have worked on Shylock, but it certainly gives the rest of us pause for thought.

If you'd like to learn more about the character of Portia throughout the course of the play, click here.

A version of this article was originally published, by the author, on

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