There’s a growing circle of folks in the world who are starting to regard the canon of Shakespeare’s works to be the greatest and most eloquent repository on how humans should live their lives. That is: what makes us human? And what precepts should guide our hearts and minds–and the way we treat others? One great example of this is Portia’s speech to Shylock on the merits of mercy:
The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
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 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 enthroned 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. 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.
–from The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene i
Beyond its eloquence and poetic beauty, this speech is fascinating because Shakespeare puts this very learned and moral examination of the qualities of mercy on the lips of a woman.
As we know from many of my past posts, women were regarded as chattel in Elizabethan England. And while Shakespeare’s treatment of women in his plays was an evolving process–from bigoted to enlightened–The Merchant of Venice comes relatively early in Shakespeare’s career. Moreover, Portia’s great speech is delivered when she is disguised as a man. It’s as if no other character in the play would give truck to such revelatory words unless they were spoken from the mouth of…a man.
Read the speech again now: its truths are as valid today as they were over 400 years ago.
The image comes from the 2004 film of The Merchant of Venice, with the great Lynn Collins as the clever–and morally astute–Portia.