The Quality of Mercy in Shakespeare

Peter Milward, SJ

 Peter Milward, SJ / Issue 1701 / Published Date:10 February 2017/Last Updated Date:14 November 2018

Upon inaugurating the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis quoted The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare. During the dramatic court scene, the heroine, Portia, defended the merchant Antonio against Shylock’s legalistic fury, saying the “quality of mercy is not strained; it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath.”

This appeal to mercy is also found in Measure for Measure, in the words spoken by another heroine, Isabella, who intercedes for the life of the evildoer Claudio, her brother, in front of the precise judge, Angelo, who insists on legal justice. Even in the tragedy of King Lear, this appeal is not incompatible with a call to justice on a more personal level.