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I think I know what Shakespeare meant for Portia to be saying when he wrote this dialog between Shylock and Portia, and I found a decent discussion on the web here.

What I want to know is, what do people mean, when they quote this figure-of-speech by itself. It seems to have acquired a meaning of its own, a proverb that in the end, embodies some meaning which maybe is supposed to be clear to everybody, but which is not clear to me.

Is it used by those who quote it, for example, meant as a rejoinder or insult against someone who seems stubborn, recalcitrant, and uninterested in the mores of the larger society? Has anyone seen a cataloging of other places in literature where this quote is used, or is the quote largely used in conversation only?

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"I was in Mercy, Australia, recently and was served tea made from the hair of a koala bear." "You're kidding! How was it?" "Oh, it was awful. It was filled with koala hair!" "Well, you know, the koala tea of Mercy is not strained." –  Daniel Roseman Jun 13 '11 at 18:39
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@Daniel Roseman: +1 for making coffee come out my nose. –  PSU Jun 13 '11 at 19:10
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4 Answers

up vote 14 down vote accepted

"Strained" is a Shakesperean-era term for "forced or constrained"; it means mercy must be freely given. You can grasp this by seeing the quote in context:

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.

Portia is importuning Shylock to show mercy, but recognizing that she cannot demand it. Shylock declines, of course, and this proves his undoing, for now Portia uses his "letter of the law" attitude against him.

A modern-day equivalent would be something like

Look, I can't force you to give me a break here, but it would benefit us both if you did.

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So in a sense, it could be used by lots of people to appeal to enlightened self interest of those who may or may not be able to be convinced by an appeal to altriusm alone? –  Warren P Jun 13 '11 at 17:53
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@Warren P: That would be one way to put it, yes. –  Robusto Jun 13 '11 at 17:58
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I think the situation where this quotation is most commonly used today is rather the obverse of Portia's plea. She was asking for mercy but making the rather obvious point that she could not force the plantiff to grant it. (Strained here meaning forced). The usual context today, I believe, is to refute another persons claim to have behaved mercifully or generously by pointing out that they actually had no choice other than to do as they did. Example:

Well, I gave two thousand pounds to charity last year.
Only because your accountant told you to pay it to avoid surtax. TQOMINS.

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+1 for quite a good example. I've also heard it used somewhat differently, as in "I gave you £50 only last week". Where the reply "TQOMINS" means something like "if you're showing me mercy in the first place, why stop at some arbitrary amount?* –  FumbleFingers Dec 16 '11 at 17:24
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I can't say why people use the phrase today...perhaps sometimes it is used as a subtle rebuff in sarcasim toward someone who is not demonstrating real mercy or kindnesses...but rather a self serving appearance of largess.

But the phrase in the Shakespeare text I believe is:

...to be a gentle imploring for mercy toward the asker...by reminding the person implored...that it costs nothing to show mercy...that in fact to do so blesses all concerned. The gentle rain metaphor demonstrates this...the Bible says (as Shakespeare well knew) that 'God sends the rain to fall on the just and the unjust'...not that he is not also in a position to finally judge...but that God is merciful...frequently giving better than we deserve...and is quick to forgive those that truely seek such with a bowed heart. It 'straineth' not to be merciful...but makes one richer over all in character. It's costs one nothing to forgive...except ones own smallness. Forgiving is not small...nor is it to be brushed aside as casual...but it is large in the end.

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What's with all the ellipses? –  Matt Эллен Jan 3 '12 at 11:43
    
Agree with Michelle H. The normal way we use the phrase of itself today is not really what Shakespeare was getting at. He was talking about the nature of Mercy, of what it is or what it should be. –  user17708 Feb 2 '12 at 16:46
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The question of "...what do people mean, when they quote this figure-of-speech by itself" is hard to answer without context ('by itself', indicates an unprovoked declarative statement as opposed to a response of some sort).

I equate the term 'strained' with 'compromised', so mercy, as a conceptual term, remains preserved. This is especially true when granted in order to circumvent punishments that exceed the nature of the crimes calling for such punishments.

The term 'mercy' insinuates a power differential between the aggrieved and the aggressor, and indicates that alternative responses, such as vengeance or banishment, exist.

An obvious example of the use of the quote might be to appeal to the better nature of a plaintiff by a defendant in a court of law: if the eloquence of the first sentence is not compelling enough, the second sentence states that blessings will confer to both parties if mercy is granted.

What may be inferred from the second sentence is that failure to grant mercy might be detrimental to the emotional well-being of both parties.

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I'm having trouble understanding this answer. Your sentences are a bit too long for me to follow. –  simchona Aug 12 '11 at 7:07
    
Thank you for your insight. I'm new. –  Sonic-Q-Tip Aug 15 '11 at 8:53
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Using a famous play or movie line "by itself" assumes the context that existed at the origin of the quote. There are many of these -- "make my day", "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore", "I'm shocked, shocked to find ...", "my kingdom for a horse", "I'll have what she's having." –  Jay Elston Dec 17 '11 at 0:51
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protected by RegDwigнt Jan 19 '13 at 11:40

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