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." Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 18:39
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    @Daniel Roseman: +1 for making coffee come out my nose.
    – PSU
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 19:10

4 Answers 4


"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
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 17:53
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    @Warren P: That would be one way to put it, yes.
    – Robusto
    Commented Jun 13, 2011 at 17:58

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.

  • +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?* Commented Dec 16, 2011 at 17:24

I can't say why people use the phrase today. Perhaps it is sometimes used as a subtly sarcastic rebuff toward someone who is not demonstrating real mercy or kindnesses, but a self-serving appearance of largesse.

But I believe the phrase in the Shakespeare text is gently imploring for mercy toward the asker by reminding the person implored that it costs nothing to show mercy — that to do so, in fact, 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'; it is not that God is ultimately not also in a position to pass judgment, but that he is merciful, frequently giving better than we deserve, and is quick to forgive those that truly seek the same with a bowed heart.

It 'straineth' not to be merciful, but overall makes one richer in character. It costs one nothing to forgive, except one's own pettiness. To forgive is not petty, nor is it to be brushed aside as a casual thing, but is ultimately large.

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    What's with all the ellipses? Commented Jan 3, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 2, 2012 at 16:46

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.

  • I'm having trouble understanding this answer. Your sentences are a bit too long for me to follow.
    – user10893
    Commented Aug 12, 2011 at 7:07
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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
    Commented Dec 17, 2011 at 0:51

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